Rethinking Japan's China Policy: Japan as an Accommodator in the Rise of China, 1978-2011

By Jerden, Bjorn; Hagstrom, Linus | Journal of East Asian Studies, May-August 2012 | Go to article overview

Rethinking Japan's China Policy: Japan as an Accommodator in the Rise of China, 1978-2011


Jerden, Bjorn, Hagstrom, Linus, Journal of East Asian Studies


For the last four decades Sino-Japanese relations have been characterized by steadily growing economic and sociocultural interactions. Yet, greater interdependence has developed in tandem with bilateral tensions. Many analysts have attempted to explain the latter as a result of Japan trying to balance or contain the burgeoning growth of Chinese capabilities. In this article, we question and qualify this widespread understanding of Japan's response to China's rise by examining how Japan has handled China's rise between 1978 and 2011. More precisely, how has Japan dealt with China's long-term core strategic interests, which are embodied in the post-1978 Chinese "grand strategy" that is believed to have been instrumental to China's rise? Our main finding is that to a significant degree Japan has accommodated the rise of China rather than balanced against it.

KEYWORDS: Sino-Japanese relations, Japan's China policy, the rise of China, containment, balancing, accommodation

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"THE RISE OF CHINA" IS ONE OF THE MOST SPECTACULAR PROCESSES TO unfold in contemporary international relations. Ever since Deng Xiaoping introduced policies to reform and open up the People's Republic of China (PRC/China) in 1978, there has been a gradual and long-term, yet spectacular and historic, expansion of the country's economic, military, and political capabilities. The global ramifications of China's rise have already been enormous, and there are likely to be more such ramifications just beyond the horizon. Nowhere do the effects of China's transformation run as deep as in its own backyard. How to handle China's growing capabilities, and power, has been elevated to a core political issue throughout East Asia and the world--not least in Japan.

Japan and China normalized diplomatic relations in 1972. Six years later they signed a treaty pledging to "develop relations of perpetual peace and friendship" (Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan 1978). The relationship has since been characterized by steadily growing economic and sociocultural interactions. China has become Japan's most important trading partner and the primary destination for Japanese foreign direct investment (FDI), and Japan is conversely China's third-largest trading partner, its second-largest source of FDI, and one of the top destinations for Chinese studying abroad (International Monetary Fund 2010; Naughton 2007, 363).

Paradoxically, perhaps, Sino-Japanese interdependence has developed in tandem with increased bilateral tension in recent years. During Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro's incumbency (2001-2006), the relationship was particularly strained, represented most importantly by Beijing's decision to discontinue bilateral summitry between October 2001 and September 2006--in reaction to Koizumi's recurring visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where fourteen Class A war criminals are commemorated. Public opinion polls in both countries also demonstrate that mutual perceptions grew increasingly negative in this period, reaching a historic low in the mid-2000s (Hagstrom 2008-2009). A significant number of observers have sought to explain mounting tensions in the bilateral relationship as a result of Japan "resisting" (Ross and Zhu 2008, 7), "containing" (Odgaard 2008, 193-194; Men 2008, 21), "balancing," or "constraining" (Chung 2009, 663, 669) China's rise, either by beefing up its indigenous defense capability (internal balancing) or by strengthening the alliance with the United States (external balancing).

Although realists of different stripes tend to disagree about the likelihood that balancing behavior will occur in a given situation, at least some strands of balance-of-power theory predict Japanese balancing against China's rise to prevent the neighbor from becoming too powerful in East Asia (cf. Mearsheimer 2001, 140-143, 156-157). Kenneth Waltz, who regards balance of power as the hard core of neorealist theory, has repeatedly hypothesized that Japan's China policy would develop along exactly these lines. …

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