Risks to the Japan-China 'Tactical Detente'

This commentary is part of a new CSIS project exploring the impact of Russian and Chinese information operations in democratic nation-states. Part I of the project examines Russian disinformation campaigns in the United Kingdom and Germany and Chinese disinformation campaigns in Australia and Japan. Read the piece on the United Kingdom here and on Germany here.

Japan is preparing for Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s spring 2020 state visit, which will serve as a litmus test of the historically fraught bilateral relationship. The meeting could produce a signed “fifth political document” defining the relationship. While Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe is known as a China hawk, he has been taking a pragmatic approach toward Japan’s neighbor since the nadir in the relationship in 2012. Over the past two years, China and Japan have established a superficial “tactical detente” or “new start” to hedge against the uncertainty from the U.S. trade war with China. Oddly, President Donald Trump’s unpredictability has worked to reduce some tensions in Asia as big rivals seek to reduce risk. Meanwhile, Japan and the United States have switched their positions on China with the United States growing more hawkish, creating anxiety in Japan about being out of sync with its ally. Long-standing tensions between China and Japan thus could reemerge and threaten the current detente. One area of risk that gets less attention is China’s influence operations, which can spark a backlash in Japan and throw relations back off track.

Unlike some rich democracies, Japan has generally resisted overt, sharp political influence from its massive neighbor China due to strict campaign finance rules, regulations favoring domestic industry, a homogenous population, and bias of suspicion toward China. Yet, Chinese influence in Japan is like air: it’s everywhere and nowhere in particular. Chinese cultural influence is Japan is ubiquitous: it’s in the language, art, cuisine, literature, architecture, music, law, and philosophy. But after about two thousand years of intense China-Japan relations (documentation of the bilateral relationship dates back to the year 57AD), including wars, invasions, and rivalries, Japanese society has become accustomed to living side-by-side with China yet not necessarily together, and the country has proved to be relatively impenetrable against Chinese political warfare. But there are risks to the relationship. That’s one of the main takeaways of more than forty interviews in Japan I have conducted over the past two years on this topic.

Devin Stewart is a senior fellow at the Eurasia Group Foundation and Carnegie Council. 

You can read the full piece here.