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Foreign Policy

Japan Should Not Fan the Flames

Apr 12, 2023
  • Cai Liang

    Secretary-General and Research Fellow, Centre for Sino-Japanese Relations, SIIS

At the invitation of China, Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi visited on April 1 and 2. It was the first visit by a Japanese foreign minister since December 2019. A host of connections were arranged, including meetings with Li Qiang, China’s premier; Wang Yi, director of the  Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission; and Qin Gang, foreign minister and member of the State Council.

The two sides had in-depth exchanges on China-Japan relations and international and regional issues of common concern. China also explained its positions on the Taiwan question, issues related to semiconductors and the discharge of contaminated water from the Fukushima Dai-ichi nuclear plant.

As for the jarring notes and disturbances in bilateral relations, Wang said “the fundamental reason is that some forces within Japan knowingly follow the wrong policy of the United States toward China.” State Councilor Qin was even more outspoken, stating that Japan should refrain from fanning the flames of trouble, and should do more to contribute to regional peace and stability.

So what exactly has Japan done to “fan the flames” to the point that China’s two top diplomats were so outspoken? The answer can be summarized from three dimensions:  

First, on the security front, Japan has acted as a vanguard to assist the U.S. effort to curb China. It is clear that the U.S., in order to maintain its hegemonic system, has strengthened the Five Eyes Alliance, peddled the quadrilateral mechanism, put together the AUKUS, intensified its military alliances and set up “integrated deterrence” against China in the Asia-Pacific region — a multilayered network of allies and partners to form a collective and powerful impediment. The U.S. expects Japan to bring strategic leverage to all this, and clearly positions the U.S.-Japan relationship as a global partnership for the new era, reiterating shared concerns about China’s behavior that are supposedly inconsistent with the international order. Japan has also responded positively to make the U.S.-Japan alliance a cornerstone of peace and security in a free and open Indo-Pacific region and beyond.

Against this backdrop, the three security documents adopted in December 2022 clearly identified China as the greatest strategic challenge confronting Japan, and that for this reason Japan must not only develop a “counterbalance capability” but also transform the traditional alliance structure — in which the U.S. is on the offensive and Japan on the defensive — into one that sees Japan as both playing offensive and defensive roles. Going forward, Japan will go down the path of an “expeditionary forward base” for the U.S. to deter China, either through a significant increase in defense spending or a revision of the Guidelines for Japan-U.S. Defense Cooperation and the Status of Forces Agreement.

Second, on the issue of economic security, Japan has acted as a front in service to the U.S. objective of containing China. Japan believes that another aspect of China-U.S. competition is defined by which prevails in the fourth industrial revolution; therefore, it is strengthening cooperation with “like-minded countries” to promote economic security cooperation to form a two-wheel structure and craft the future international order, — such as through “small yards, high fences.”

Therefore, it is high on Japan’s agenda to advance decoupling from China in some highly sophisticated fields, such as semiconductors, and restructure the corresponding supply chains to secure Japan’s technological supremacy.

To this end, Japan has, on one hand, built a new U.S.-Japan partnership of competitiveness and resilience, set up the Council on Innovation and Competitiveness and actively participated in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework and Quadrilateral Alliance on Chips. On the other hand, it seeks to wean itself of dependence on China by strengthening economic ties with India and ASEAN, making it more difficult for China to turn its economic advantages into political influence.

It is also worth noting that the day before Hayashi’s visit to China, Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry announced that it would tighten export controls on 23 types of high-performance semiconductor manufacturing equipment in six categories, which would limit normal China-Japan cooperation in the semiconductor industry in the future and seriously damage China’s related interests.

Finally, on the Taiwan question, Japan has acted as a bridgehead for the U.S. in suppressing China. Japan has been playing an underpinning role, believing that the greatest value of its diplomacy is to do its utmost to maintain a “free and open international order.” In doing so, Japan has taken on the important task of demonstrating its global responsibility and influence. Thus, it is clear that Japan's involvement in the Taiwan question is a blatant intervention in China’s internal affairs and that its motives are complex and multifaceted, ranging from economics to security, to safeguard its own interests and its political calculations designed to check and balance China. But to carve out a righteous pretense for its involvement in Taiwan, Japan has been following the tune of the United States and has increasingly emphasized the importance of protecting Taiwan from a values-based perspective.

Based on this, Japan has used various international occasions, in both bilateral and multilateral talks, to emphasize that Taiwan’s values are the same as those of the U.S., Japan, Europe and other Western countries, and that countries should pay attention to the “importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait” while implicitly exaggerating the idea that Taiwan is “under threat” from the Chinese mainland.

After the outbreak of the Russia-Ukraine conflict, Japan has drawn parallels between the situation in Ukraine and the Taiwan question, stressing the intertwined nature of Euro-Atlantic and Indo-Pacific security and strongly opposing “any unilateral attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas by force or coercion.” It says that “peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait is an indispensable factor in the security and prosperity of the international community.”

Japan’s fanning the flames is clearly contrary to the political consensus at the highest level of leadership — the claim that they are partners and do not pose a threat to each other. But the fact that China and Japan are close neighbors means that it is both of immediate relevance and historical necessity to seriously explore ways to coexist peacefully. As Premier Li Qiang stressed, the only way to build a China-Japan relationship that meets the requirements of the new era is for both sides to focus on the overall picture and the long term, strengthen dialogue and cooperation, properly manage differences, forestall risks and disturbances and continuously expand the positive aspects of bilateral relations.

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