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How Would Non-politicians Deal with China on the Human Rights Front?

A role playing exercise showed Chinese pressure is effective, and Japan is unable to operate in the way it wants. Lesson: Japan should take the initiative in an information war.



The image of Xi Jinping looms over life in the Uyghur's Xinjiang region.



How should Japan handle human rights diplomacy? What should be the function of the country’s new special adviser on human rights?

Last weekend I hosted an exercise in which participants thought about how Japan should pursue human rights diplomacy in a fictitious international situation. The goal was to think about what Japan’s human rights diplomacy should be.

It was the 36th time for the Canon Institute for Global Studies (CIGS), where I am a research director, to run such a policy simulation.

Overseen by Professor Ken Jimbo of Keio University, who is also a senior research fellow at CIGS, about 40 academics, civil servants, experts, business people, and journalists gathered to take part in this diplomatic exercise. Over the course of about eight hours, they pretended to be government officials from various countries. I thank them deeply for their intelligent contributions.

The pandemic had forced us to conduct these simulations as webinars for the past 18 months. This time, though, we were able to carry out the exercise face-to-face while taking the maximum precautions against COVID-19.

Uyghur refugees in third countries bring attention to the forced sterilizations, disappearances, torture and other atrocities committed by China against them and their families.

Key Points on the Process

The face-to-face simulations brought me to realize three things. 

First, diplomatic games are really limited to face-to-face. Negotiation is a shrewd operation that takes place between humans, and nothing beats monitoring the other person’s body language in the flesh.

Second, there is a generational shift among the participants. This particular simulation has a history of 10 years. On this occasion, one third of the participants were young and took part for the first time.


When doing these sessions, the quality of the participants is everything. In this latest session, it was very pleasing to see the younger members pretend to be the key VIPs of each country with such ease. Perhaps it’s true that old soldiers never die, they just fade away.

Third, the exercise highlighted the importance of not forgetting your original intention. The objective of this session was to introduce the concept of a political appointee system in Japan, and to develop talented non-civil servants who are neither government officials nor politicians. This is why I warmly welcomed the participation of young people.

I’ve gone off track. Let’s return to the main subject.

Flags fly outside the United Nations General Assembly Hall (Rick Bajornas/UN Photo via AP)

The 2021 Exercise

In this recent session, we looked at hypothetical situations of unrest in Myanmar and Xinjiang, and created teams within our group relating to Japan, the United States, China, Australia, and ASEAN. The point was  imagining how they would each respond.

In the end, we concluded that the United States would enact an Uyghur forced labor prevention law and, teaming up with Europe, put pressure on China. However, we also found that Japan would not be able to keep up with the U.S. and Europe, which was disappointing.

The Chinese team was strong in the simulation. China criticized the U.S. as part of an information war, claiming the Americans had “spread dubious information on the Uyghur people.”

Regarding Japan, China made economic threats, saying, “If you team up with the U.S., we will halt exports of magnesium carbonate, aluminum, and graphite to Japan.”

The role-playing Japanese government official merely said, “We will monitor the situation,” whereas the U.S. and other countries pushed for full regulation of their companies with supply chains in the Xinjiang region.

In the simulation, the role players for the Japanese government and the Keidanren asked the China role players to lift sanctions on Japan, and also expressed an interest in greater cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative.

Japan's National Diet, lower house.

Lessons Learned

In a meeting after the simulation, the Japan team said: “We were caught between the United States and China. We were unable to take our own initiative, and we adopted a reactive approach. We abandoned the idea of enacting any human rights laws or sanctions as we didn’t want to provoke China, and ended with a very realistic result.”

Meanwhile, the China team commented: “We were aggressive in separating Japan from the U.S., India, and Australia,” and “applied economic pressure on Japan.”

In other words, translated to the real world, Chinese pressure is effective — and Japan is unable to operate in the way it wants. This isn’t an illusion.  Human rights diplomacy is a key part in information warfare, but it is not the decisive hit.


If you combine the above with the recent disappearance of Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, you can conclude one thing: When it comes to Chinese diplomacy, “they are strong on offense but weak on defense.”

The message for Japan is therefore clear. In its human rights diplomacy with China, Japan should take the initiative in an information war, and then adopt an actively offensive approach. That would be the most effective.

Our session was just an exercise — but it was an eight-hour session that taught us many lessons. 

Kunihiko Miyake

(Read the Sankei Shimbun report in Japanese at this link.)

Author: Kunihiko Miyake

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