Welcome to instalment XXX of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column that provides running commentary on major developments, current events, and the evolution of China and Japan relations.
The past few months have seen a flurry of international summitry between the United States and its European and Asian allies, where leaders repeatedly condemned China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, its maritime assertiveness, and threatening posture toward Taiwan. Both Japan and South Korea were active participants in those meetings, but South Korea was not equally willing to endorse direct and open criticism of China’s behavior. Beijing has taken the differences in their stance as confirmation that Japan is well on the road toward full alignment with the United States while South Korea still seeks to balance ties between the two superpowers.
There was one crucial difference between the joint statement issued after Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s meeting with President Joe Biden at the White House in April and the one released after South Korean President Moon Jae-In’s visit to Washington in May. They touched on many of the same themes, including a commitment to preserve a “rules-based international order” and to create a “free and open Indo-Pacific”, a call for stability in the Taiwan strait, a pledge to promote human rights abroad and an emphasis on respect for international law and freedom of navigation in the South China Sea. However, the statement signed by Moon did not include any direct reference to China. At the G7 summit in the United Kingdom in June, Japan, as a full member, also endorsed the communiqué criticizing China on the same issues, while South Korea, as a guest, signed only an “Open Societies Statement” that was an implicit rebuke to China’s authoritarianism but spoke only of defending democratic values in very general terms.
The official Chinese response to its neighbors’ diplomatic maneuvers differed accordingly. Japan came under particularly heavy criticism by a Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs’ spokesperson who reminded Japan of its “debt” to China from the crimes committed during WWII. South Korea received only a warning to “speak prudently” and “refrain from playing with fire” regarding Taiwan. In phone calls with his two counterparts, Foreign Minister Wang Yi also demanded that Japan uphold its obligations toward China enounced in their 1978 Peace Treaty and “truly respect China’s internal affairs”, while urging South Korea to not let itself be caught in the U.S’ “confrontational” Indo-Pacific strategy.
This suggests that China sees the Korean stance as more “suitable”, requiring only the occasional warning to keep it from veering off course, while Japan’s attitude is deemed to go against historical trends and to ultimately be self-defeating. Chinese leaders have repeatedly expressed an understanding that globalization, economic interdependence and “peaceful development” are the dominant trends of the 21st century. In their narrative, only the hegemonic but declining United States, jealous of China’s rise and dynamism, stands in the way of these positive developments that would see the world eventually come together to create a “community of shared destiny” centered on Beijing. In such a situation, “small and medium-sized countries” in Asia, which in the current Chinese understanding means virtually everyone outside of the United States, Japan included, should avoid “taking sides” among competing great powers and focus on fostering ever-closer economic ties instead.
Chinese analysts believe South Korea recognizes this. Even if “walking a tightrope” between the U.S and China is challenging, South Korea still tries its best to avoid offending the latter and remains committed to deeper economic cooperation. Japan, on the other hand, is seen to be “fully falling for the U.S”, letting itself be “controlled” by Washington and foolishly adopting a course that goes against its own economic interests. A Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman recently urged Japan to stop following the U.S.’ “economic suppression and containment” strategy and instead to “follow the trends of the time” by fostering an open business environment. To many Chinese observers, though, Japan is taking the side of a “declining West” against the “rising East”.
This is useful context to understand a recent controversy on the internet in China where several public intellectuals became the target of vicious attacks for “betraying” their country by participating in government-affiliated exchange programs to Japan. The victims were accused of lacking “cultural self-confidence” and promoting hostile foreign ideologies. Those Japanese exchange programs were condemned in the same breath as American ones and deemed tools in the “ideological struggle” between China and the West. There seemed to be no doubt in the mind of web-users that Japan was part of the Western camp hostile to China’s rise.
The intensifying confrontation between the United States and China is thus creating new headaches for Japan. Even as attitudes harden in Tokyo due primarily to Beijing’s assertiveness in the East China Sea, closer cooperation with Washington in reaction to this is creating new sources of nationalist anti-Japanese sentiment in China. The contrast with the more prudent posture of South Korea is only accentuating suspicions of Japan’s intentions. This may hinder the trend toward more positive perceptions of Japan in China that had developed in the pre-pandemic years thanks to the growing number of tourists and students visiting the archipelago. Such a poisonous atmosphere will make it harder for both governments to maintain a separation between security tensions and diplomatic and economic ties.