A visit to Japan is fruitful in many ways, it is a beautiful country, with all kinds of wonders to behold. But from the point of view of international relations, it is one of the best places to understand China. Geography has made these two countries proximate to each other, but the lessons of history have been mixed since the Sino-Japanese war of 1894.
Their contemporary relations are rife with tension, with bitter
grievances stated and unstated. Currently they are focused on a couple
of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea called the Senkaku Islands
by Japan and Diayou by China.
disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. A look
at the map will tell you why the Senkakus are deemed important by China.
Till 2008, Chinese intrusions into the Senkaku (Diayou) islands were
rare, though Beijing had expressed their claim for the islands in the
However, from 2010 onwards their intrusions became a routine event
with 10-15 vessels entering the territorial sea every month. In early
August this year, the Japanese detected an unusually large number of
ships coming in, comprising of coast guard and fishing vessels. Most of
these fishing vessels are manned by paramilitary personnel. Japanese
analysis of the coast guard ships indicate that some of them are
converted naval vessels and some even equipped with higher calibre guns.
A look at the map will tell you why the Senkakus are deemed important
by China. They lie close to Taiwan and a couple of other Japanese
islands which are astride China’s sea lanes to the Pacific Ocean. The
Chinese view the ‘first island chain’ running from Japan to the
Philippines, with Taiwan in between, as a psychological barrier to their
aspiration to be a Pacific Ocean power like the US.
Japanese economists are almost uniform in their assessment that
China’s economy has steadily worsened since the beginning of 2014. They
think that China’s resource consumption economic model is now at a
turning point. An index prepared by the Centre for International Public
Policy Studies (CIPPS) based on data from some 60 Japanese companies
operating in China suggests that there is substantial financial distress
in production and sales. There have been significant capital flows out
of China, which began with the stock market fiasco in June 2015 and
there is a serious issue of new investment coming in now.
Most specialists are agreed that there is considerable problem in
getting accurate information in China. There are no good indices to
depend on so, it is difficult to make accurate prognoses of the economic
goals of the Chinese leadership.
Looking at the internal dynamics of China, a majority of Japanese
scholars believe that there remain serious internal differences and Xi
Jinping’s position is not as strong as it is often made out. As one
Japanse scholar put it, “Xi is much stronger than Hu and Jiang, but he
lacks the charisma of a Mao or Deng. He is, at the end of the day, a
princeling and a party apparatchik.” In line with this, he believes that
Xi is not seeking to strengthen himself, but to shore up the
institutional base of the Communist Party of China itself.
It is much more difficult to get an understanding as to where the
opposition to Xi comes from. Some specialists say that it lies within
the special interest groups like the PLA and the giant state-owned
enterprises. Others argue that it lies in the middle-levels of the CPC
In some ways, Xi and the CPC are playing a losing game as the party
becomes weaker and weaker. A lot of this manifests itself in foreign
policy where the CPC is using aggrieved nationalism to rally the people,
a situation which triggers a vicious circle, with people then expecting
China to behave as a big power whenever it confronts a crisis. As such,
as one Japanese expert noted, the top two officials — State Councillor
Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Yi are not even members of the
politburo, leave alone its standing committee. So, in a sense there is
vacuum at the top of foreign policy decision-making.
Despite the tensions, which are very serious, Japan and China still
have a significant relationship. Japanese aid and grants totalling a
massive $300 billion between 1980-2014 helped China build its
world-class infrastructure. Even now, the annual flow of people between
the two countries is some 8 million. China is the largest trading
partner for Japan, and Japan is the second largest for China and remains
the third largest foreign investor in China.
India and Japan have had a long relationship, which was never really a
factor in their relationship with China. As open societies, India and
Japan function in ways that are quite transparent. This is not the case
with China, which is quite opaque. In recent years, the rise of Chinese
power has given us some understanding of the common challenges we face
—such as the Chinese tendency to shift goalposts in their border claims
or the mendacity of their foreign policy. Understanding Chinese
behaviour and their motivation is important, because it has huge
implications for both of us.
Mid Day August 30, 2016