Book Review: Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China


Book Review: Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China 

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RUSI Journal, April 2016

No country feels China’s rise more than Japan. With this simple assertion, Sheila A Smith takes us through a superb and badly needed analysis of the current state of Sino–Japanese relations in Intimate Rivals: Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China. She argues that for the past forty years, the relationship has been built on the premise that economic interdependence is the key to postwar reconciliation between the peoples of both nations. And in many ways, the bilateral economic relationship has produced astounding results. Between 1972 and 2004, Sino– Japanese trade increased 161-fold, from $1.04 billion in 1972 to $167.89 billion in 2004. Between 1994 and 2003, Japan was China’s largest trade partner, and by 2005, China comprised 20 per cent of Japan’s trade. In many ways, China’s rise has rested partly on Japanese investment, trade and official development assistance. So why have relations soured so dramatically over the past decade?

In trying to answer this question, Smith uses foreign-policy analysis to uncover the domestic drivers of Japan’s China policy. She is well equipped to take this approach: using her extensive contacts, her list of interviews in Japan includes no less than four prime ministers, four foreign ministers, and a large number of cabinet secretaries, senior bureaucrats and academics. Furthermore, her seat in the Council on Foreign Relations – a prestigious Washington think tank – means that she understands the policy and research communities. She was able to secure access to many prominent Japan and China experts based in the US; these included the likes of Elizabeth Economy, Kurt Campbell and Jeffrey Bader, among others. With this wealth of inside sources, combined with excellent research skills, she delves deeply into a range of issues from economic interdependence, to territorial disputes, to food-safety concerns; in doing so, the author takes a hard look at the role that history plays in the bilateral relationship.

The story she tells in the relationship between Tokyo and Beijing seems to be one of repeated missed opportunities. The leaders of both nations never missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity, to borrow Abba Eban’s phrase. In 1992, she writes, Japan’s leaders put their misgivings to one side and agreed to send the country’s emperor and empress to China on a state trip. At a welcoming dinner at the Great Hall of the People, the emperor spoke of ‘the unfortunate era when our country caused immense pain and suffering to the Chinese people’ (p. 42). His unprecedented words could have heralded a new era of Sino– Japanese relations. Instead, President Jiang Zemin used his 1998 visit to Tokyo to berate Japan for its history at a state dinner hosted by Japan’s emperor and empress. Televised nationally in Japan, Jiang’s harsh speech put the relationship back in the freezer. More often than not, relations between the two countries have been characterised by missed opportunities like this one, with leaders on both sides pandering to the worst elements of their domestic base.

The regular visits of Japanese prime ministers to the Yasukuni Shrine – on which the names of Class-A war criminals are inscribed – have become a perennial problem for the two countries and are a case in point. Junichiro Koizumi – perhaps one of Japan’s greatest prime ministers of the past forty years – made annual visits to the shrine, which regrettably have become traditional. Attempting to sidestep Korean and Chinese sensitivities, he insisted the issue was purely domestic. However, since the museum attached to the shrine contains a highly revisionist account of Japan’s imperial history, visiting Yasukuni became more than just honouring Japan’s war dead; it was a place for rejecting foreign criticism of the country’s war history. Koizumi’s win as leader of the Liberal Democratic Party was down – Smith believes – to his campaign promise to visit the shrine. For a man increasingly disenchanted with Japan’s pork-barrelling party-faction system, the trips to Yasukuni were essential to maintaining his hold over the party. However, the visits only seemed to justify those hardliners in Beijing who wished to use anti-Japanese sentiment for domestic purposes. It is odd that two states which have such close economic ties, and which share such close cultural and historical features would so consistently and grievously risk the Golden Goose upon which their mutual prosperity depends.

Smith dedicates a full chapter to maritime territorial disputes, since they have become so important to regional security and American naval policy over the past few years. Her account of the situation in the East China Sea is quite troubling. By her account, the issue was a slow-burning one in which the two sides went from shelving the dispute, to a gradual increase in coast- guard maritime activity, followed by the use of military patrols. Though both sides were initially willing to adopt an accommodating position on the Shirakaba/Chunxiao gas fields in a 2008 agreement, negotiations were stymied by a host of issues: first, there were the open-ended rules in the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS) for demarcating exclusive economic zone boundaries, which led to other problems. There were large numbers of domestic actors – state and non-state – in both countries who advocated the most extreme interpretation for which UNCLOS allowed. In China, fishing commercial firms, coast guards, nationalist groups, and military planners all lobbied actively for the largest territory, while in Japan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs struggled to maintain control of the issue, as Japanese nationalists and fishing firms became increasingly vocal over Japanese territorial rights. For those who follow the region, Beijing’s current focus on the South China Sea and disputes there has reaffirmed in Tokyo the idea that China is a revisionist power, intent on revising the post-war order using the implicit use of force. Frankly, that’s an interpretation that many in the US and the region have come to share, though with various caveats.

Smith’s book comes out at a time when China has risen as a great power in the region and seeks to reorder that region to suit its national security preferences. It also comes at a time when Japan seeks to find a role for itself more in keeping with its economic stature. At no other time in history have the two nations both been strong like this. It says much about the dynamic that both nations see the other’s efforts to integrate the region economically – the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or Hatoyama’s East Asian Community – in binary terms. The success of one, seems to rob from the other. Smith’s book should be on the must-read list for anyone attempting to understand East Asia and the future of the global order. The relationship between the world’s second- and third- largest economies is an important case study of how China handles complex relationships and hints at its own vision for the world. On the more narrow issue of the bilateral, one sees a sad trend of missed opportunities for both sides to look forward – China could celebrate the fact that Japan has invested billions of dollars into its economy and build on that. Japan for its part, could resist the domestic pull of imperial-era nationalism and understand that its history is not purely a domestic issue. Given the complexity of these issues, it is good to have Smith on hand, guiding our understanding and shedding light on their domestic drivers. Useful for both policy practitioners and academics, this book is a must-have on one’s shelf.

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