China's Friendly Offensive toward Japan in the 1950s: The Theory of Wedge Strategies and International Relations

By Yoo, Hyon Joo | Asian Perspective, January-March 2015 | Go to article overview

China's Friendly Offensive toward Japan in the 1950s: The Theory of Wedge Strategies and International Relations


Yoo, Hyon Joo, Asian Perspective


This article explores why the People's Republic of China employed a surprisingly soft and lenient policy toward Japan in the 1950s despite their historical and political animosities. Relying on a relatively new concept in the study of international relations, I argue that China's conciliatory policy toward Japan represented a wedge strategy that was designed to detach Japan from the United States and weaken the US-Japan alliance. The logic of the theory also reveals that China's policy was in line with its "united front" against the United States during the Cold War. KEYWORDS: China-Japan relations, China's foreign policy in the 1950s, Cold War history, wedge strategy, US-Japan alliance.

THE PEOPLE'S REPUBLIC OF CHINA (PRC) EMPLOYED A SURPRISINGLY soft and lenient policy toward Japan in the 1950s despite the two countries' historical and political animosities. In the first half of the twentieth century, the Chinese people suffered Japan's military aggression in Manchuria, viewing Japan as China's main enemy. After the PRC was established in 1949, Japan continued to be in the enemy camp as the Cold War structure placed the two Asian states on opposing ideological sides. Japan signed a peace treaty with Taiwan, acknowledging the victory of the Republic of China in the Sino-Japanese war, and recognized the government of Taipei rather than the PRC. Nevertheless, China emphasized cultural links and sought to expand economic relations and political contacts with Japan. What explains China's approach toward Japan in the 1950s?

Relying on a relatively new concept of wedge strategies developed by Timothy Crawford and Yasuhiro Izumikawa, I argue that China's overture toward Japan used those strategies to detach Japan from the United States and weaken the US-Japan alliance. The logic of wedge theory reveals that this policy was in line with China's "united front" strategy to deal with the United States during the Cold War.

This article is organized as follows. First, I discuss how major schools of thought in international relations predict China's behavior and why their explanations are deficient. Next, I delve into key theoretical arguments about wedge strategies and explain why China is a significant case study. Then, I explain why China's policy toward Japan in the 1950s should be regarded as a wedge strategy by looking at the intent and origin of China's united front strategy. I explore the range of China's wedge strategies toward Japan and evaluate their effectiveness by looking at the US reaction. Finally, I examine some implications that the China case study can offer for the theory of wedge strategies.

Major Schools of Thought and China's Friendly Approach Toward Japan

China's conciliatory policy toward Japan in the 1950s differs from what the major international relations theories might have predicted. Balance-of-power theory has difficulty in explaining why China tried to improve bilateral relations with Japan at that time. The theory assumes that states seek internal military mobilization or external alliance partners to confront others with considerable economic and military strength. China's foreign policy in the 1950s was clearly designed with the preponderant US military capability and the US alliance system in East Asia in mind. It is not surprising that the PRC, with dire economic conditions and a poorly equipped military force, chose to "lean to one side," allying with the Soviet Union against the United States rather than opting for neutrality (Zagoria 1962; Gittings 1972; Yahuda 1978; Shen and Li 2011 ).1 The balance-of-power argument would predict that China would also confront Japan, given that Tokyo was a significant alliance partner for Washington. Instead, China sought to restore bilateral relations with Japan as early as 1952 when the Korean War was going on and US bases in Japan were crucial to the US war effort (Barnett 1977).

The balance-of-threat theory has similar problems in offering explanations (Walt 1990). …

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