The end of Japan's China optimism
But Prime Minister Noda can't afford to be too confrontational toward Beijing

Sgt. Jacob N. Bailey

Prime Minister Noda meets with Secretary of Defense Panetta meet in Tokyo, Japan on Oct. 25, 2011.

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Yoshihiko Noda took power in Tokyo last week because of Japan's desperate domestic situation. Its economy has been battered by the March 11 triple disaster of earthquake, tsunami, and nuclear crisis. Its political system seems paralyzed, with Mr. Noda becoming the sixth prime minister in five years. It is aging and losing competitiveness. And a general ennui is creeping through society. Like his predecessors, Mr. Noda will stand or fall on how well he manages to juggle these daunting challenges.

Mr. Noda will not be only a domestic- and economic-policy leader. In his first days, perhaps as much attention has been paid to Mr. Noda's foreign policy views and criticisms of China.

"None want a clash of any kind, nor a more confrontational relationship, but neither are Japanese willing to be forced into accommodating Chinese desires." -- Michael Auslin


Yet Mr. Noda will not be only a domestic- and economic-policy leader. In his first days, perhaps as much attention has been paid to Mr. Noda's foreign policy views and criticisms of China. Mr. Noda recently wrote an essay in the prestigious Bungei Shunju periodical, in which he called Chinese foreign policy "high-handed" and stated that its rapid military buildup was of "great concern not only for Japan but the entire region." Moreover, his new foreign minister, 47-year old Koichiro Gemba, has caused waves by similarly warning China to "play fair" in global political and economic policy.

These attitudes mark the final nail in the coffin of China engagement pursued by both the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and the former majority Liberal Democratic Party. Since China's economic growth spurt began in the 1980s, Japan has sought to tread a careful line between forging closer ties with Beijing and maintaining its tight alliance relationship with the United States. Like Washington, Tokyo has sought to benefit from China's economic growth while hedging against its rising military strength and political influence.

One obvious reason for the change in tone from Tokyo is that the past year has strained Sino-Japanese ties. Most damaging was the face-off over the Senkaku Islands last fall, in which the Japanese Coast Guard arrested the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel in the disputed waters. An almost total rupture in diplomatic relations and tit-for-tat retaliation dragged on for weeks. China's unveiling of a fifth-generation stealth fighter-bomber and the recent launching of its first aircraft carrier have further ruffled Japanese feathers, as Beijing continues its march toward building the most powerful Asian military.

The DPJ was once expected to dramatically improve relations with China. One of its most powerful founders, the now disgraced Ichiro Ozawa, had led large delegations, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, to China, openly proclaiming better ties. Yukio Hatoyama, the first DPJ premier, also proposed an East Asian Community, in which Japan, China and South Korea would take the lead. Such outreach seemed not only natural but far-sighted, given that China is Japan's most important trading partner.

Few in Japan today talk in such optimistic terms about China. None want a clash of any kind, nor a more confrontational relationship, but neither are Japanese willing to be forced into accommodating Chinese desires. Mirroring the change in American attitudes, there is rather a growing pessimism that China will willingly adopt international norms of behavior as it becomes stronger. Its repeated claims over all of the South China Sea and ostentatious sailing of a small flotilla between Japanese islands all add to a deepening sense of unease in Tokyo. Defense planners have openly started talking about focusing on Japan's "southwestern wall," the string of islands stretching from Kyushu to Taiwan, and Japanese politicians muse about closer relations with Australia and India, for example.

Meanwhile, the bedrock of Japan's security remains the alliance with the United States. Mr. Noda also is believed to be a strong supporter of the alliance, and has been quoted as saying that Japan should do away with its infamous Article 9 of the Constitution that denies the country the right to have military forces for "war or the settlement of international disputes."

This, along with his controversial statement that he does not believe Japan's Class A war criminals of World War II were guilty of war crimes, has raised hackles in China. Strong editorials in Chinese newspapers have warned Mr. Noda not to visit Yasukuni Shrine, where the spirits of those war criminals are said to be enshrined, and to accept Chinese claims over the Senkaku Islands. Beijing appears as worried about Mr. Noda's views as of the possibility of Tokyo and Washington reviving their alliance, which has been rocked the past two years by disputes over rebasing U.S. forces inside Japan.

All this means that China and Japan are headed into another rough patch. With Japan weakened by domestic problems, it is even warier about Chinese moves to reduce Tokyo's influence in Asia or its maneuvering room in East Asian waters. The heated rhetoric will likely die down after a while, but the behind-the-scenes jockeying for position and the wary looks toward one another will not cease.

For Mr. Noda, this is a headache he does not need. Any mishandling of relations with China will result in criticism by opposition lawmakers, and perhaps from those in his own party as well. Japan needs every trade partner it can get now, and while both Mr. Noda and Mr. Gemba are believed to support Japan's participation in the Trans-Pacific Partnership free-trade negotiations, China will remain crucial to Japanese economic health for decades to come.

More generally, Mr. Noda cannot afford to isolate Japan any further. Not only China, but South Korea has registered its objections to his views on Japanese war criminals. On the other side of the ledger, Washington is weary of dealing with revolving Japanese leaders and growing impatient to see movement on relocating U.S. forces in Japan. Mr. Noda will have to delicately balance all these pressures. Otherwise he will risk leaving Japan even more distant from its neighbors and friends than before.

Michael Auslin is a resident scholar at AEI.


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About the Author


  • Michael Auslin is a resident scholar and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), where he studies Asian regional security and political issues.

    Before joining AEI, he was an associate professor of history at Yale University. A prolific writer, Auslin is a biweekly columnist for The Wall Street Journal Asia, which is distributed globally on His longer writings include the book “Pacific Cosmopolitans: A Cultural History of U.S.-Japan Relations” (Harvard University Press, 2011) and the study “Security in the Indo-Pacific Commons: Toward a Regional Strategy” (AEI Press, 2010). He was named a Young Global Leader by the World Economic Forum, a Marshall Memorial Fellow by the German Marshall Fund, and a Fulbright and Japan Foundation Scholar.

    Auslin has a Ph.D. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, an M.A. from Indiana University at Bloomington, and a B.S.F.S. from Georgetown University.

    Follow Michael Auslin on Twitter.

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