Growing Chinese power is changing Japan’s strategy in Asia

[:en]One article I read this week profoundly challenged my thinking about the relationship between China and Japan.

It claimed that: “The idea that Beijing suddenly warmed up to closer relations with Japan as a result of China’s weakening economy and a trade dispute with the U.S. is arrant nonsense.”

The piece was written by Dr Michael Ivanovich and published on CNBC to tie in with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to China last week. It suggests most of the media has misunderstood the background to the visit.

The mainstream view, expressed on outlets such as the BBC, is that “trade tensions with Washington have driven Japan and China into an unlikely friendship.”

But Dr Ivanovich says that China’s economy is not weak and that “China does not need Japan for the steady growth of its huge and rapidly expanding domestic market.”

“China does not need Japan” Dr Michael Ivanovich

Who needs who?

He also claims that it is “ridiculous to think that China needs Japan as an ally in its trade dispute with the U.S.” He says it is far more likely that Japan needs China to keep its economy on track.

In his clever and provocative piece, Dr Armstrong says Shinzo Abe’s friendly policy towards China has turned him into “a supplicant for contact and attention with an aloof, hostile and indifferent Chinese leadership.”

Mr Abe is also chided for being too friendly to China by the Japanese daily newspaper, the Mainichi. It says Japan could be forced to accept the position of being a “peripheral country next to the great nation of China.”

Belt and Road

Nevertheless, the Mainichi – along with many other media outlets – sees value for Japan in cooperating with China in the economic sphere.

It says that in June last year, Prime Minister Abe announced that Japan would support China on some parts of the One Belt One Road initiative, promoted by China as a means of developing global trade.

Another person who believes that BRI is a pragmatic way for Japan to engage China is Shiro Armstrong, who has presented a very good piece of analysis on East Asia Forum which has been picked up by many outlets.

He writes: “As Chinese policymakers search for ways to better deploy the country’s vast sums of capital abroad, Japan has experience of doing just that dating back to the 1970s – including of geopolitical pushback.

“Understanding that the Belt and Road is here to stay, Japanese engagement can shape the massive investments and get more business for its companies. It’s also a part of a broader hedge against an increasingly uncertain Japan–US relationship.”

Tensions with Trump

The tensions in the US relationship with Japan were analysed in This Week In Asia published by the South China Morning Post. It says pressure from the US has forced Japan to start talks aimed at narrowing its trade gap with America. It had a $69 billion surplus last year.

The thoughtful article by Crystal Tai quotes Yves Tiberghien, director emeritus of the Institute of Asian Research at the University of British Columbia. He suggests that Donald Trump has taken an old trade war to a bigger level.

“But there’s something more toxic about this round,” says Mr Tiberghien. “The current approach by the US is actually one that abuses, bullies and threatens, which affects trust and confidence. It could affect the global trading system, it may not even help the US in the end.”