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China, Japan, and U.S., a case of “paper, rock, and scissors”

September 28th, 2010 Leave a comment Go to comments

Many Americans think the politics of East Asia is dominated by China on one side and U.S.-Japan on the other. While that may be true on the surface, the dynamics are actually very complicated, and in fact makes that dichotomy false. The pillar of the Japan-U.S. alliance was born out of the Cold War in fear of the former Soviet Union, which no longer exists today in case you haven’t noticed. In contrast, the threat today is a loose combination of whatever is posed by North Korea, China, and Russia. For the on-going of American occupation of Japan, I think it is a much harder sell today.

We see cracks in the pillar recently – former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama made the policy pronouncement when taking office to focus on this idea of an East Asian Community. He won partly on the issue of wanting the U.S. to relocate the military base in Okinawa. Japan is now occupied for over 60 years. This situation is unprecedented in history. How long should the U.S. be occupying Japan? Another 10, 100, or 1000 years? Japan is already paying for the U.S. military presence, so it is only a matter of time before the Japanese wanting to spend that money too on her own military.

East Asian countries are publicly opposed to a more normal Japanese military, but in my opinion, for a stable and peaceful Asia, that is an eventuality. The foundation for peace has to be that of between normal nation states, and Japan’s neighbors cannot count on a perpetual U.S. presence to suppress Japan. If we look into history, civilizations rise and fall. That’s been the truth. That’s probably part of Japan’s calculations too. Fast-forward 100 years and what if the U.S. dramatically weakens? Japan cannot be caught in a vacuum. A responsible Japanese government must sow the seeds for a peaceful Asia.

The distrust between Japan and U.S. is huge. The skeleton is truly in the closet. Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor is fresh in the minds of Americans. So is the horrendous death and destruction of the bombs on Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Both events are commemorated every year in each country. The Japanese are quietly resentful of the fact that the U.S. dictates what Japan does. For example, the U.S. forced the Japanese Yen to rapidly reevaluate in the Plaza Accords to fight U.S. problems, and as a result created a bubble economy in Japan.

Recently I asked some Japanese friends what they thought about Japan buying so much American bonds while Japan has such a huge national debt. Their response was that Japan is forced to lend money to the U.S..

So, the dynamics is simply this – if China is able to help Japan feel safe in Asia, then there will be a stronger rejection of American meddling. America is interested in hyping up the threat from China and North Korea to preserve the status quo. Some have already observed how brilliant the U.S. has played this game thus far. Look at Diaoyutai. Militarily backing Japan to take control of Diaoyutai strengthens the hawks within Japan, making resolution of this dispute between China and Japan difficult. That causes anger within China towards Japan. Flaunting the Japanese navy with the U.S. aircraft carrier in the Yellow Sea sows further distrust between them.

Japan and China are the two largest lenders to the U.S.. Therefore, their policies towards the U.S. government with respect the USD is one and the same. Both countries enjoy trade surplus with the U.S.. On those grounds, they probably compare notes on how to engage with the U.S.! China is now Japan’s largest trading partner – yes, even surpassing the U.S.. The importance of China to Japan is only growing.

Sure, the distrust between China and Japan runs deep. World War Two was not that long ago. Japanese politicians often visit the Yasukuni Shrine honoring Japan’s WW2 war criminals. To the Chinese, Japan has not yet fully atoned to her past wrongs. Is the distrust between China and Japan necessarily that different between America and Japan? It’s really hard to size up the skeletons hidden in the respective countries closets. Remember, it was the Americans who dropped the atomic bombs on the Japanese. The U.S. and Japan have had a chance to reconcile, and they have “normalize” for some decades now. That’s tampered by an occupation that is very unnatural in the long run, and one that is already very much resented by the Okinawans.

Confronting Japanese leaders today is whether to accept the status quo, being occupied and subservient to the U.S., or to take proactive steps and become a “normal” country. As long as there is no Soviet Union version 2.0, I think it is more likely Japan works towards becoming a normal nation state. The U.S. public may grow tired of such an expansive U.S. military footprint around the globe given how much problems exist domestically. Also, China may start to take a more aggressive stance militarily in the region. A lot could happen.

(Let’s be real about Diaoyutai as of late though. Japan deciding to arrest and prosecute the Chinese captain on disputed waters is provocation and belligerence. Obviously, we expect the U.S. media to turn this incident into a China threat and narrate it as China becoming more “assertive.”)

Paper, rock, or scissors? Which move, Japan?

  1. September 28th, 2010 at 12:02 | #1

    I actually have a little different take on this. I believe that a world of order is in general better from a world of disorder. China has prospered most when she has been most ordered … so has Europe (from Rome to the modern push toward a stronger EU) … so has America.

    While I do believe a world ordered around China will be more just than one that has been ordered around America, I believe an American-ordered world still beats a orderless world. I think China probably still needs 20-30 (maybe 10-20) more years before it has enough clout to offer a world order stable and prosperous enough for the majority of the world to subscribe to.

    In the mean time, China – even as she grows – will have to adjust to an American ordered world, however unfair that world may be.

  2. September 28th, 2010 at 14:42 | #2


    I too think China has prospered with the present world order dominated by the U.S.. Even if China gets to a point as strong as the U.S. is today, world institutions likely continues to evolve rather than start afresh.

    Without the U.S. military presence, Japan could too become much more militaristic than today. With that in mind, the U.S. presence can be viewed as maintaining order and is welcomed. So, if the Japanese government goes in the direction of belligerence and aggression in Asia, I can see Asian countries supportive of the U.S. military presence to keep the lid on Japan.

    There is really nothing destined Japan and U.S. to have a forever alliance. It is very real Japan and rest of East Asia become much more integrated and stable in the long run.

    I guess my point is the dynamic between China, Japan, and the U.S. is not simply Team A vs. Team B. Rather, it is a push and pull between the three parties, subject to realities on the ground over time.

  3. September 28th, 2010 at 18:01 | #3

    @YinYang #2,

    I can see your point. My hope is for Japan, China, and Korea to unite into a political entity. They are like three brothers who just had a fight, but who are still brothers – bound not only by culture, but also by tradition, geography, economy … and people.

  4. September 29th, 2010 at 00:14 | #4

    @Allen, #3

    I for one can stand behind that hope, and I think many in Asia can too.

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