TIT FIRST reliable records from an official Japanese mission to China date to 238A D, when Himiko, a Japanese queen, sent a delegation to the Wei Kingdom in China, offering as a tribute ten slaves and two 20-foot-long textiles. In the 7th century, the Yamato, a clan that ruled much of Japan at the time, regularly sent emissaries with tributes to the Sui and Tang courts. Japan adopted the Chinese writing system; Japanese monks and scholars absorbed the religions of China.
Japan has remained a close, albeit suspicious, observer of its larger neighbor over the centuries. In the late 1970s and 1980s, motivated in part by guilt over wartime atrocities, Japan helped China modernize. Japanese companies were among the first to tap into its growing market. Japanese leaders have also sounded the alarm bells about Chinese expansionism, especially after the two clashed between 2010 and 2012 over uninhabited rocks in the East China Sea, which Japan calls the Senkaku Islands and that China calls Diaoyu. “We warned the we: this is not a small compartmentalised file between Japan and China, but the sign of a rise in power in the region, ”explains Sasae Kenichiro, former Japanese ambassador to America.
Such views have fallen on deaf ears in America and Europe, where leaders have focused on the benefits of China’s integration into the global economy. Yet in recent years, the Chinese aggression in Hong Kong, the crackdown in Xinjiang and the saber-strikes around Taiwan have also made many Western governments more suspicious. As they enter an era of competition with China, the prospect of Japan is once again sought after. Some prominent US and UK officials have started talking about bringing Japan (and others in the region, including South Korea) into the Five Eyes, an English-speaking intelligence-sharing network, in the hope of improving their understanding of China. “Fifteen years ago, if I spoke to [Western colleagues] About the negative aspects of China, I was treated like a right-wing Japanese scholar, hating China, ”explains Matsuda Yasuhiro, China scholar at the University of Tokyo. “Now people are listening to us. “
Japanese observers of China are now talking about three worrying trends. The first is the overconfidence of the Chinese. “They really believe the West is in decline,” said Kanehara Nobukatsu, a former Japanese deputy national security adviser. Japanese academics believe that China’s rulers are showing no attitude when they claim their political system is superior to America’s messy democracy. Some note disturbing parallels to Japan’s confident stance as WWII approaches. “We always remind them of our past mistakes before the war,” said a senior Japanese former diplomat. “They say, ‘You’re kidding, we’re totally different.’ But in our eyes, there are more and more similarities.
The second is the shift from collective leadership to individual leadership under Xi Jinping, the Chinese president. Japanese officials are concerned that, in its reliance on one-man decisions, China is more like North Korea. Indeed, Xi, from this point of view, may be even more isolated than Kim Jong Un, the North Korean dictator, trained in Switzerland. “Xi doesn’t know everyone who is free at all, I’m sure Kim knows our world better,” Kanehara said.
Finally, there is the state of the Chinese economy. Xi’s recent crackdown on large private companies amid “common prosperity” has left many Tokyo residents worried about the future of China’s growth. “The Chinese come to us and encourage us to invest more, they tell us not to miss the boat,” explains an adviser to a major Japanese bank. “But when the Chinese say that, it means they have a problem.” China’s support for overseas infrastructure projects through its Belt and Road Initiative has declined dramatically in recent years, a sign that the Chinese economy is facing “serious problems” in its wake. country, says Maeda Tadashi, governor of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, the state-owned overseas development finance agency.
A slowdown in China would have drastic implications for Japan’s own economy: China absorbs 22% of its exports, more than any other country. Japanese observers of China fear this may also cause Xi to distract from a faltering economy by stoking nationalist passions with adventurism around Taiwan or the Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. Yet many Japanese academics remain more skeptical than those in America that war on Taiwan is imminent, says Aoyama Rumi of Waseda University in Tokyo. Japanese experts speculate that Xi will not put his own power in jeopardy by launching a risky all-out invasion of the main island of Taiwan anytime soon.
As elsewhere, military and security types tend to be more worried than political analysts about Mr. Xi’s possible willingness to use force to take Taiwan. Yet even they tend to be more equivocal than their American counterparts. “The time frame could vary considerably,” said General Yoshida Yoshihide, chief of staff of the Japanese ground forces. “It’s hard to say something specific, like ‘six years from now’,” as a US admiral suggested to Congress in 2021. Japanese observers are more concerned about the activities of the “gray area” which do not constitute a total invasion, from cyber attacks to incursions into Taiwanese waters by the Chinese Coast Guard or land grabbing on the outer islands of Taiwan.
These concerns fueled a shift in Chinese policy in Japan. Before the pandemic, Japan and China had experienced a period of relative bonhomie. Abe Shinzo, the then Prime Minister of Japan, sought to stabilize relations after the Senkaku / Diaoyu clashes and invited Xi for a state visit in April 2020. Covid-19 has halted those plans. Kishida Fumio, the new Japanese prime minister, has tried to be cautious, but has taken several hawkish first steps nonetheless. His cabinet includes a new minister of “economic security”, responsible in part for reducing dependence on China for essential supplies. He also appointed Nakatani Gen, a former defense minister known as the Chinese Falcon, as the human rights czar, in an effort to take a stronger stand on Chinese abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong. A stimulus package adopted in November included an unusual amount of 774 billion yen ($ 6.8 billion) for additional defense spending to speed up purchases of new missiles and planes.
In 2022, Japan and China will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of post-war relations. There is little appetite for the holidays. In 2021, some 71% of Japanese people said China was a “threat”, up from 63% in 2020. Similarly, 66% of Chinese had a negative view of Japan, compared to 53%.
The two armies agreed this week to improve their communication channels – a welcome step, but also a sign of the seriousness of the tensions which have become worrying. Mr. Kishida objected to a visit by Mr. Xi, while refraining from officially canceling the invitation. He also decided that Japan would not send any ministers to the Beijing Olympics in February, only a handful of sports officials. Japan will not call the move a “diplomatic boycott,” as America and other allies have done. But no one in China will confuse the lean delegation with the tributary missions of yesteryear. The next phase in the long history of Japan and China is likely to be eventful. ■
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “The View of Tokyo”