Monday, March 22, 2010

What, We Worry? Or, China as a Non-Threat, Revisited

This is for the most part a memo that I wrote in the course of certain work that I do. Since it’s not going to see the light of day, I won’t be violating any professional obligations if I post it here.

I have spent the better part of the 21st Century arguing against analyses from the Japanese right and even not-so-right regarding China as a threat that increasingly emanate a sense of urgency. Given this experience, I do not pretend to be able to force on you a radically different perspective. Therefore, I am merely using this opportunity to gather my thoughts and see you what you make of them.

The Japanese, for better or worse, are not Koreans, not Pakistanis; they are comfortable playing second fiddle. For the first millennia and a half of its existence as a nation, Japan willingly paid (non-tributary) tribute to China. There is no reason to believe that it cannot settle into that East Asian role once again—if it comes to that. In the meantime, after an initial outburst of alarming rhetoric and the high-profile fumbling of the Futenma Air Base issue, Prime Minister Hatoyama has been sucked back into the Yoshida-Doctrine gravity well, naming the United States as Japan’s undisputed No.1 squeeze.

Japan: We’re No.2, so we try less harder.

Pop history aside, China currently does not pose anything approaching an existential threat to Japan. China disputes Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, but has made no overt move to challenge Japan’s possession. It also disputes Japan’s claim that is an island—a charge, if sustained, would cause Japan to lose a big chunk of its EEZ—but has not taken its claims to the Hague. There is a large swath of EEZ/continental shelf that both sides lay claim to, but China has carefully avoided encroaching on the disputed area in developing gas fields there while Japan is unable to do so economically. China, like Japan with regard to the Northern Territories and Takeshima, tacitly recognizes the reality behind the maxim that possession is nine points of the law and sees no advantage in changing the status quo.

Therein lies the falsehood in an Israeli analogy, a juxtaposition of two nations isolated from their neighbors with scant prospects of reconciliation. Israel was born into an overwhelmingly hostile environment. It has improved its security situation considerably since making peace with Egypt and Jordan, but continues to face grave existential threats to this day as a Euro-American—but increasingly nativist—outcrop in a sea of Moslem Arabs. By contrast, the high seas have long served Japan as a natural barrier to China’s imperial outreach. Technology has tamed and shrunk those waters, but has also transformed them into a super-gateway for commerce and interchange. Speaking of which, short of a military blockade, how is China going to seal off Japan’s sea lanes without strangling itself, since both countries are resource-poor economies that depend for the most part on the same trade routes?

Of course it’s always good to plan against capacity, not intent. And we cannot forget the aggressive moves that the Chinese military made in the 1990s against Southeast Asian neighbors regarding disputed islands as they affected claims on seabed resources. Japan does have a substantial navy in its Maritime Self-Defense Force, but just to be sure, all but the left-most politicians in Japan want the US 7th Fleet to stay, if nothing else.

But enough about national security. As I indicated with regard to the Israeli analogy, as China has grown, so has the economic relationship. Some thinkers like to see the rise of China as an undesirable outcome of some kind of a zero-sum game. But most of their arguments confuse ratios with sums. No doubt they will have their followers to the right, but the reality is that, economically speaking, a strong China is a desirable China.

But does China have other ways to crush Japan on the economic front? Could it demand, for example, that ASEAN member countries buy Chinese nuclear reactors in exchange for access to the Chinese market for their own goods? Plausible, if not probable. But remember, China and ASEAN member countries are members of WTO in good standing. More important, a Japanese nuclear power play is a US and quite likely European play as well, as would be an aircraft deal; such is the situation of so many large-scale, high-tech undertakings today. In taking a mercantilist position against Japan, China would be going up against the rest of the West as well. (I have more to same from what I would guess to be the ASEAN perspective, but I’ll leave it to the Southeast Asia analysts to argue the case on its behalf.)

Of course it need not come to that. And it won’t. Akio Toyoda, beleaguered president of the quasi-eponymous Toyota, went straight from Washington to Beijing—not London, not Paris, not Bonn, but Beijing—on a pilgrimage of penitence for his company’s braking mishaps. Make no mistake, Japanese businesses know where the next big thing is coming from, and they are determined not to miss out on it. And where Japanese businesses lead with their money and their time, Japanese politicians will follow. And China will welcome it.

The handwringing that you see on the Japanese right is just that, handwringing. And pundits will do well to avoid association with such thinking.


Mark said...

Just out of curiousity, does Japan want to play second fiddle? Sometimes, it certainly seems that way. Having a lower profile certainly has its advantages, namely, other countries make fewer demands on you. Really, as things are going right now, Japan seems to be in a great position. It is poised to gain from the economic expansion in China and despite all the noise in the media about the decline in Japan, elite opinion worldwide seems to think otherwise, and that makes Japan influential. In many ways, I think Japan has a very enviable position. You lucky bastards (or smart and sneaky bastards). :-)

Jun Okumura said...

You know, Mark, I usually don't take kindly to culturalist explanations, but on Sancho Panzdom, I think there’s something to be said for them. Not sure I agree with your point about Japan being lucky though. Physical distance doesn’t mean much since Japan and China don’t have much to sell each other by way of cheap, bulky cargo like coal.

I’ll try to come back to these points later, in a separate post.