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If underlying geopolitical factors are the overriding cause of the recent decline in relations between China and Japan, then the current trajectory is likely to persist, for there is little reason to believe that those factors will change. The most obvious of the underlying factors is competition for natural resources. China, with its burgeoning economy and massive population, has an enduring need for the hydrocarbon and fishing rights in the East China Sea that it is seeking to wrest from Japan. The Japanese also have great numbers of automobiles to fuel and mouths to feed, and hence are unlikely to lose their interest in hydrocarbons and fish.
A less obvious, but perhaps no less powerful, underlying factor is the desire of the Chinese and Japanese governments for preeminence in East Asia. Both China and Japan have held the role of East Asia’s dominant power in the past, and both have nationalists among their ruling classes who believe that their country’s rightful place is located at the top of the East Asian pecking order. Nationalist sentiments are stronger in China, where nationalism has largely supplanted Marxism-Leninism as an ideological force. In Japan, the ghosts of World War II have left a lingering suspicion of nationalism, imperialism, and militarism, but nationalism has been resurgent of late, fueled by perceptions of a rising threat from China.
The chances of a full-blown war between China and Japan appear low, thanks mainly to nuclear weapons. But the Chinese may try to test the limits of Japanese and American forbearance with seizures of islands, maritime rights, and airspace. They are keenly aware that pacifist sentiment remains significant in Japan, and that the current U.S. administration has been disinclined to take a stand against aggressors, as seen most prominently in the case of Russia’s land grabs in Ukraine. The Chinese Navy’s strong-arming of its Philippine counterpart at the Scarborough Shoal in 2012 offers a worrying portent of what could follow in East Asia.
Japan’s ability to deter and defeat Chinese burglary in the East China Sea will depend on the U.S. Navy, as Japan’s Navy is much smaller than China’s. The U.S. naval presence is scheduled to diminish precipitously next year, when U.S. aircraft carriers will be absent from East Asia for four months, the first time since World War II that the United States will have no carriers in the region. Thanks to ill-considered cuts to the U.S. defense budget and the present troubles in the Middle East, the world’s greatest naval power cannot maintain one carrier in the region to which the White House not long ago promised to “pivot.”
Over the long term, dwindling American military power in the Pacific could cause Japan to build its own aircraft carriers. That outcome would have the benefit of shifting some of America’s defense burdens to an ally. But it would also mean a decline in influence for the United States, as the Japanese would use their carriers to promote their own interests, which do not always align with those of the United States. It would increase the propensity of the Japanese to view themselves as a superpower and to pay less heed to the Americans on a wide range of political, economic, and military matters of high importance to the United States. In any event, designing and building carriers will take the Japanese at least a decade, by which time the Chinese may be able to take what they want in the East China Sea.
Americans like to think that the Japanese are destined to remain a U.S. ally against China because the Japanese share America’s liberal democratic values and object to the autocratic ways of the Chinese, or because fear of rising Chinese power will inevitably cause Japan to “balance” against China by siding with the United States. But there exists a real risk that Japan could one day lose interest in its American alliance and cozy up to China. On a number of occasions during the Cold War, the United States feared that Japan was getting too close to China, and the fear remains a valid one today. Just last week, Japan and China issued a “Principled Agreement on Handling and Improving Bilateral Relations,” which some observers hailed as an initial step towards a rapprochement, though only time will tell whether the agreement has more than symbolic value. If the United States continues to grow weaker in the Pacific, its attractiveness as an ally will diminish further, which the Chinese may seek to exploit by offering the Japanese enough concessions to lure them away from the United States.
Japan’s future relations with China will depend not just on geopolitical factors, but on the decisions of individual Japanese and Chinese leaders, who are influenced by culture, ideology, and personality, as well as by hard geopolitical realities. Some Japanese political parties are distinctly more inclined towards accommodation with the Chinese than others. China could at some point undergo a political liberalization that the Japanese would find especially attractive. The United States must do its best to influence these decisions, while recognizing that it may have to deal with decisions it does not like.