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Foreign Policy

Japan Factor in Sino-U.S. Relations

May 20 , 2013
  • Wu Zurong

    Research Fellow, China Foundation for Int'l Studies

The Japan factor is looming large in Sino-U.S. relations. If China and the United States fail to fully understand, as early as possible, its paramount importance from a strategic and long-term point of view, and earnestly work together to deal with it effectively, the U.S. strategy of rebalance toward the Asia-Pacific would go astray, and East Asia would be destabilized. As a result, the Japan factor will become another irritant to Sino-U.S. relations, and China, the U.S. and other Asian-Pacific countries would suffer enormously. 

In recent years in Japan, an extreme nationalist ideological trend has taken shape and is quickly expanding its influence. The Shinzo Abe Cabinet and the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have started to adopt an assertive foreign policy, and Japan is fast becoming a trouble-maker in East Asia. Abe and his supporters openly call for negation of imperial Japanese aggression, claiming that the definition of “aggression” has not yet been “firmly determined”, and that the 1946-1948 Tokyo War Crimes tribunals were illegitimate, and that the killings by Imperial Japanese aggressor troops during the 1937 “Nanjing massacre” were exaggerated or fabricated. In April 2013, three ministers of the Abe cabinet and 168 Japanese parliamentarians visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which houses among others several individuals who were convicted as “Class A” war criminals after World War II. Further more, Abe stated that he would not re-affirm the apology for Japan’s war crimes by revising “the Murayama Statement” and “the 1993 Kono Statement” that apologized to the sex slaves and their families, and he is planning to make a more forward-looking official statement in 2015.  

Abe is a typical representative of the Japanese ultra-nationalist political groups. His rhetoric and plans for revising Japan’s pacifist constitution to allow for Japanese participation in collective self-defense have been his first steps toward strengthening military power and extending Japanese military operations all over the world without any domestic constitutional or legal restrictions. However, as Richard Nixon pointed out in Beyond Peace “For Japan to rearm or to acquire nuclear weapons is politically unacceptable at home and abroad.” In the face of Abe’s militant rhetoric and advocacy for more military muscle, there is growing fear in Asia that Japan might again become a major military power. The fact that Japan has decided and will continue to increase its military forces above the level necessary to defend its home islands will have serious consequences for the Asia-Pacific region. 

Japan has fully taken advantage of the U.S. strategy of rebalance toward Asia-Pacific to emphasize U.S.-Japan military alliance for its concealed goals. By catering to U.S. desires to strengthen alliances for its rebalance toward Asia-Pacific, Japan has taken a very high profile posture on improving its relations with the U.S. in order to win U.S. support for its military revival. So far for the short-term interests and because of the temporary budget difficulties, the U.S. has done a lot to foster Japanese military forces in the hope of gaining Japan’s greater contributions to its global strategy in terms of funds and military operations. The U.S. even went so far as to refrain from criticizing Abe’s ultra nationalist behavior and remain partial to Japan over the territorial disputes between China and Japan. The current tensions over the history issues and territorial disputes between Japan and its neighbors further demonstrate that Japan has embarked on a wrong and dangerous path. China and the U.S. have to recognize the seriousness of the situation and work together to help Japan realize its mistakes, ease the tensions in the region and avoid adding new irritants to Sino-U.S. relations. 

With no formal security mechanism in Asia, the U.S., China and Japan need to keep a delicate balance in order to maintain peace and stability., And in particular, as the only superpower in the world, the U.S. possesses sufficient leverage to play a constructive role in North East Asia while looking after its own interests there. For the U.S., it is highly necessary to abandon the Cold War mentality such as strengthening the military alliance with Japan for the sake of containing China’s rise. In the long run, such plans or strategies will never succeed, and they will do no good for the U.S., China or Japan. In the new century, it is worthwhile for China, the U.S. and Japan to try to work together as equal partners to create a totally new relationship by following the world’s general trend of peace, development and common prosperity. 

Wu Zurong, Research Fellow at the China Foundation for International Studies.

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