The future of Asia will not be determined solely by the relationship between the United States and China. A more ancient power struggle—between China and Japan—is just as significant a factor in the course of world events in the Indo-Pacific region.
For millennia, these two nations have been locked in a relationship even more mutually dependent, competitive, and far-reaching than the more recent one between Washington and Beijing. Japan’s contemporary role in the major-power clash in Asia is not a mere sideshow. The Sino-Japanese relationship is Asia’s other great game, and it is in many ways an eternal competition.
Past is Prologue
To understand Asia’s future, we must understand its past. Records show that representatives from Japan—what the Chinese then called the “land of Wa”—first landed in Han China in 57 CE. This early visit concerned Chinese interventions in the Korean peninsula, a Japanese trading partner then and now. The two nations’ complex relationship evolved over the centuries. In the 6th century, Japanese Empress Suiko rejected China’s efforts to dominate her country, in favor of a stronger and even superior Japanese policy in northeast Asia.
The broad contours of Sino-Japanese relations thus became clear early on: a competition for influence, an assertion by both countries of their respective superiority, and an entanglement with Asia’s geopolitical balance.
For much of this dual history, one nation’s fortunes rose during the other’s decline. The ancient Chinese word for Japan, “Wa” (倭), can be translated as “submissive” or “dwarf” people. The more unified and powerful China frequently emphasized Japan’s isolation, referring to it as the island “in the middle of the ocean.” But China’s “century of humiliation,” ranging from the Opium War of 1839-42 to the rise of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949 coincided with Japan’s emergence as the world’s preeminent non-Western world power. Japan continued to develop and modernize throughout the 20th century, although China began to catch up to its longtime rival in the 1990s.
Today both nations are global powers well aware of each other’s strengths and weaknesses. Both countries are wealthy, educated, and driven by strong leaders. This rough parity is new in Japan-China relations and has been perhaps the single greatest, if often unacknowledged, factor in their contemporary relationship. It is also the spur for the intense competition the two are waging in Asia.
A Complicated Relationship
It would be a mistake to view the Sino-Japanese relationship as an inherently combative one. Indeed, the two nations have historically recognized each other as beacons of civility and modernization in the often otherwise undeveloped Asian world.
Japan and China are economically intertwined, ranking among each other’s top three trading partners. Neoliberal wisdom assures that the risk of war decreases as the rate of trade increases. Yet the relationship between Japan and China, which has been described as seirei keinetsu—politically cool, economically hot—may challenge this seeming truism.
Proximity in the race for regional dominance has bred suspicion and hostility. Public opinion polls show large majorities in each country distrust the other. Policy disputes between Tokyo and Beijing are to blame. For example, the Chinese bristle at both Japan’s lack of remorse for World War II and its nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in 2012. The Japanese chafe over the same island dispute with China as well as a belief that the larger country is increasingly acting like a hegemon. Most people in both nations see outright military conflict as a real possibility.
For now, escalations aimed at countering or blocking the other’s influence and goals occur in the realm of regional trade and investment. Japan exerts influence through the World Bank-affiliated Asian Development Bank (ADB) and its billions of dollars in annual expenditures on foreign development assistance.
While China’s foreign development and aid expenditures had traditionally lagged behind Japan’s, it is making up for lost time in major projects through the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative. President Xi Jinping has pledged an incredible $1 trillion in foreign infrastructure investment under OBOR, reaching all the way to Africa and South America. However, OBOR has often delivered less than promised and has proven controversial among some Asian recipient nations, with countries like Pakistan and Malaysia souring on what has been called “debt-trap diplomacy.”
A few years ago there was hope that the ADB and AIIB might co-fund projects, but Beijing’s standing with liberal nations has fallen globally since the COVID-19 pandemic, which began in Wuhan, thus dampening prospects of genuine collaboration between China and Japan. Instead, Japan is teaming up with the United States and Australia on joint projects, including the Blue Dot Network, to counter Beijing’s OBOR strategy.
In addition to direct foreign aid, trade agreements are a tool to attain regional dominance. In contrast to Beijing’s debt-based approach, Tokyo hews to the Washington consensus of free trade pacts as diplomacy. Japan negotiated a new free trade agreement with the nine other members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2008. Japan further cemented Pacific trade ties with the passing of the Trans Pacific Partnership in 2013, despite US withdrawal, which boasts several Asian signatories in addition to Australia, New Zealand, Mexico, and Canada.
China has moved to catch up with Japan on the free trade front, signing agreements with ASEAN in 2010 and 2015. China also has embraced the 2011 ASEAN initiative to bring China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia, and New Zealand into closer collaboration. Called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, this initiative is widely seen as China’s answer to the Trans Pacific Partnership, spearheaded by Tokyo since Washington’s withdrawal in 2017.
A New Insecurity
For much of the 20th century, both nations focused on economic recovery: Japan from the devastations of WWII and China from the catastrophe of more than a quarter century of Chairman Mao Zedong’s rule. This ensured some degree of regional security, as neither was in a position to significantly build up armies or rattle sabers. Yet as these two Asian giants secured economic dominance in the post-Cold War period, military modernization became a greater goal, adding to the unease of their Asian neighbors, who remember well both nations’ imperial histories.
Today, both countries are pursuing diametrically opposed strategies to shape the perceptions of themselves within the Indo-Pacific region: Japan seeks to be loved; China, to be feared.
Japan, under the direction of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, has moved to increase defense spending and expand partnerships with its neighbors in the Pacific. Tokyo is also eager to sell maritime patrol vessels and airplanes to countries like Malaysia, Vietnam, and the Philippines to counter Chinese aspirations.
Where Tokyo has attempted to build diplomatic bridges, Beijing has staked out a more explicitly hegemonic position in the region. China has built an overwhelming military force, consisting of the world’s largest navy, advanced fighter jets, ballistic missiles, and space and cyber capabilities. To become the dominant power in Asia’s vital waterways, China has famously constructed and militarized a series of artificial islands in the South China Sea. These new assertions have unsurprisingly drawn the ire of many neighbors.
China’s approach is more likely to secure its goals, at least in the short run. Smaller nations cannot successfully resist these encroachments, no matter how many defensive systems Japan may sell them. It is here that Japan’s alliance with the United States is most critical, since it is perhaps the only power capable of fully countering Chinese aggression.
An Indeterminate Conflict of Visions
What both nations implicitly offer are rival models for national development: either the messy and sometimes sclerotic parliamentary democracy of Japan or the illiberal “socialism with Chinese characteristics.” Yet neither seeks to impose these systems on their neighbors (outside of Beijing’s claims on Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Tibet). Rather, they promote their respective systems to sway how they are viewed by the other Asian nations. By increasing their “strategic credibility” in the eyes of others in the region, each nation hopes to secure more regional influence and authority.
Although China’s newfound might may impress, few nations have embraced the Chinese political model for themselves, attempting instead to extract what benefits they can from the giant while maintaining their own autonomy in the face of hegemonic aspirations. And though others may admire the freedom and lifestyle of the waning but still quite wealthy Japanese example, Asian nations know the continued dominance of China is all but a foregone conclusion. This jockeying for influence has created a kind of market-based competition in patronage, whereby smaller states are able to extract better deals from the two countries than they would have if dealing with only one.
The rivalry between China and Japan is ancient, fluid, inescapable, and powerful. The actions of the United States, particularly with regard to how it handles Chinese aspirations, will undoubtedly drive much of the outcomes in the Indo-Pacific region in the near future. Yet neither China nor Japan can ever leave Asia; they are stuck with each other and their neighbors, regardless of the position of the United States. Asia’s first great game existed long before the United States was even an idea, and it will persist long after should the United States decide to deescalate in the region. To ignore this crucial and highly competitive relationship in the current geopolitical situation would be a great error.