The long duration of Japan’s pacifism in the face of increasing belligerence from China is not only an effect of near-sighted historical memory or the tendency to fight the last war. It can also be explained by China’s economic and political influence in Japan.
But resulting public perceptions of China’s intentions, and consequently of Japan’s pacifism, are shifting.
According to a Pew survey in Spring 2017, 83% of Japanese citizens have an unfavorable view of China, and 81% have no confidence in China’s president, Xi Jinping.
China’s aggressive behavior in Asia led Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to solidify alliances with the United States, India, and Australia, and to boost defense spending by 2.1% to JPY5.2 trillion (USD47.6 billion) for 2019. Then, on November 4, government sources revealed planning by the U.S. and Japan to respond militarily to an attack on the Senkaku Islands by China.
Japan’s Defense Ministry plans to deploy approximately 500 to 600 Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) troops to a new base on Ishigaki Island in Okinawa Prefecture, the administrative jurisdiction encompassing the Senkaku Islands and just 220 kilometers from Taiwan. They will be armed with surface-to-air and land-to-sea missiles.
Yet, Japan’s government still seeks to signal openness to China. The most recent examples are a spate of Japanese overtures in late October that culminated with Mr. Abe’s first bilaterally-focused meeting with President Xi since he became prime minister in 2012.
Japan’s door is clearly open if China chooses to progress down a peaceful path.
An October Opening to China
On October 19, Japanese Defense Minister Takeshi Iwaya officially met his Chinese counterpart for the first time since 2015. “In light of mutual understanding and confidence building, defense exchanges are very important,” Iwaya said in Singapore. “I’d like to take this opportunity to pave the way for a full-blown improvement of Japan-China defense exchanges.”
On October 21, Japanese government sources said the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Forces plan to resume mutual visits by naval vessels for the first time since 2011.
Then, on October 25, Prime Minister Abe announced planned cooperation on China’s global infrastructure initiatives, as well as a JPY3.4 trillion (USD30 billion) currency swap.
China has pursued currency swap deals worldwide to remove the U.S. dollar as the medium of exchange for Chinese trade. The growth of such swaps will increase China’s relative economic power, and in the most recent case may improve Japan’s access to China’s import and export markets.
Some U.S. analysts are disappointed at what appears to be Japan coming to China’s economic rescue at a time when the U.S. is seeking to leverage China into more reasonable international behavior through extraordinary tariffs that approach a crippling trade war. Concern also persists over Japan’s continued low defense spending of just 1% of GDP.
Japan has much to gain from improved Chinese behavior. China’s People’s Liberation Army maintains extensive military pressure on Japan’s administration of the Senkaku Islands, requiring the Japanese Defense Force to execute hundreds of naval and air force missions annually.
The Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) scrambled fighter jets a total of 904 times due to unidentified aircraft approaching Japanese airspace over the fiscal year ending in March. Nearly all of the scrambles intercepted military aircraft of China or its allies. Of the total, 500 missions were in response to Chinese aircraft, and 390 intercepted Russian planes.
Other countries, if faced with this kind of daily military harassment, might seek to join the U.S. in pressuring Beijing economically, or even fire safe warning shots when Chinese forces get too close.
South Korea’s Coast Guard fired 249 warning shots at Chinese fishermen who violated its exclusive economic zone in 2017. Russia fired warning shots, targeted fire, and detained two Chinese vessels and 36 squid fishermen for fishing in its EEZ in 2012.
Reasons for the muted response to Chinese aggression include Japan’s pacifist Constitution and an understandable aversion to militarism on the part of many Japanese citizens. Also, prior to President Donald Trump, the U.S. may have exerted pressure on Japan to take a non-confrontational stance with China. We know that the Obama administration counseled the Philippine government to adopt a legal rather than military defense of its EEZ in the South China Sea in 2012, for example.
The Suspect Role of Pacifism
But the long duration of Japan’s pacifism, under increasing threats from China and Russia, is itself arguably an effect of China’s political influence in Japan.
In 2009, for example, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) arranged a meeting — over the objections of some in the Palace — between then-Vice President of China Xi Jinping and Japanese Emperor Akihito. The meeting was hastily arranged and violated a rule requiring one-month notice for imperial audiences.
The Palace felt pressured by the new prime minister, Yukio Hatoyama, who allegedly sought to do China a favor in exchange for a meeting of 100 Democratic Party members with Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leader Hu Jintao in Beijing.
Emperor Akihito also met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2018. These meetings between the Emperor and leaders of the CCP illustrate the influence that China has over Japan, despite their strained relations.
Economic Might for Political Influence
As the world wakes up to increasing Chinese political influence in democratic societies, it has become clear that Japan, even under conservative Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, is in no way immune.
The source of the influence is China’s leading role in Japan’s trade relations. Japan exported JPY15.187 trillion (USD141 billion) to China in the year ending March 31 — a growth rate of 18.3%.
Japanese exports to the U.S. over the same period grew at a slower pace, to JPY15.181 trillion.
Japan’s increasing trade with both the U.S. and China between 2017 and 2018 may be a result of the ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war, from which particular Japanese corporations are emerging as economic winners.
China’s embassy in Tokyo leverages its increasing economic power to liaise with diverse forms of influential Japanese civil society entities, including these corporations, as well as trade organizations, universities, and cultural exchange organizations.
China’s goal is to persuade Japan to cooperate with — and ultimately enable — China’s rise, even when China is infringing on Japan’s territory, economic rights, and diplomatic sensibilities.
This strategy is effective because of Japan’s political and economic openness. China can relatively easily influence Japanese corporations and civil society groups that in turn have influence on national-level Japanese leaders.
But there is no real reciprocity because of China’s closed society. Japan and its allies cannot easily utilize the same tactics to influence those who matter in China.
The CCP’s politburo and generals are insulated by tight political controls. And, in any case, they have less and less power over the increasingly authoritarian president, Xi Jinping.
China’s Embassy in Tokyo
China’s diplomatic success in Japan is centered on its embassy, led by China’s superstar diplomatic corps over the years. Former ambassadors to Japan include Cui Tiankai, now ambassador to the U.S., and Wang Yi, China’s current Foreign Minister who is notorious for rebuking a Canadian reporter in 2016 for asking about human rights.
The Chinese Ambassador to Japan since 2010 has been Cheng Yonghua. Since at least 2013, he has been a member of the National Committee of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. The CPPCC is the Chinese Communist Party’s key body for overseas influence operations. Cheng did not reply to an email asking for further information.
Mr. Cheng frequently delegitimizes Japan and its allies as he works on promoting Chinese influence through the elite Boao Forum and the Belt and Road infrastructure investment projects.
Ignoring China’s unfair trade practices, Cheng claimed in a September speech, before the China Research Association of Japan and the China Research Association of the Japanese Association of People’s Diplomacy, that the U.S. threw the first punch in the trade war. Conversely, he painted China’s response as a protection of the World Trade Organization and the multilateral trading system.
According to a Chinese Foreign Ministry report: “Ambassador Cheng pointed out that China has always opposed unilateralism and trade protectionism and advocated rational handling of differences and problems. The United States is completely untenable in its approach to China's trade and intellectual property issues. The U.S. approach has threatened global economic growth and has been widely opposed.”
However, China has taken unfair advantage of global free trade regimes through subsidies to its own industries, industrial espionage, and violation of intellectual property rights.
The U.S. has, since 1945, been Japan’s most important military ally. It is currently revectoring its trade relationship with China after realizing that unfettered free trade with the country enabled China’s economy to grow so quickly that China became not just an economic but a military threat to Japan, the Asian region, and even the United States.
Using the ‘History Issue’
Cheng also maintains diplomatic pressure on Japan to acquiesce to Chinese demands through frequent raising of historical issues, like comfort women and the Yasukuni Shrine, that remind of Japan’s role in World War II.
His public complaints over Prime Minister Abe’s 2013 and later visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are a clear violation of China’s own ostensible rejection of interference in domestic affairs.
Cheng frequently pressures Japan to remain pacifist — while promoting anti-Japanese feelings among Chinese and South Koreans. His tactic is to admonish the Japanese people to “truly reflect on past mistakes and adhere to peaceful development,” though it is now 70 after the end of the war.
One can easily find the types of people whom China utilizes for influence in Japan by matching who is invited and who accepts invitations to embassy functions. Among them will be those seeking favors in China.
In May 2018, China’s embassy in Japan held a reception for Prime Minister Li Keqiang. In addition to Chinese and Japanese diplomats, who are required to appear at such functions, Japanese organizations attended, including the Toyota Company, Economic and Trade Association, Chamber of Commerce and Industry, Japan Trade Association, Japan-China Friendship Group, National Governor’s Council, and several airlines.
The citizens of Japan should ask these entities that seek close relations with China: how might China be trying to use them to influence Japanese values, like democracy and human rights?
China now holds approximately one million Muslims in “reeducation camps.” How much should special interests that benefit from China influence Japan’s relations with a country that is becoming increasingly belligerent to not only its own people, but to Japan and its closest allies?
Given China’s use of cultural and economic influence operations for political gains internationally, Japan and its allies must be prudent in how much we open up to this increasingly authoritarian country.
Author: Anders Corr