What Awaits the Dreaming Dragon and Reviving Phoenix?

by Teruo Katsukawa* The East China Sea has been relatively quiet since the Japanese and Chinese governments’ protest against each other concerning a Chinese frigate’s locking radar on a Japanese destroyer earlier this year. Both countries are busy pursuing their own national interests under their new regimes. Returning to power after five years, the Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo has fired his “three arrows” to rebuild the Japanese economy. The new Chinese President Xi Jinping resolutely shared his dream to restore the Chinese nation with continuous economic growth. While likewise flying to many other countries, these two leaders have not visited or even looked caring about each other.

For the first time in history, these two countries are simultaneously assuming bigger roles in the international arena. China has long remained the regional center until Japan emerged as a strong modern nation in the late nineteenth century. Japan also quickly revived out of the fire and devastation of World War II followed by economic miracle. China then began rising, causing the storm of modernization, and has now grown to the second largest economy in the world. On the other hand, Japan has returned into the fire and suffered from serious deflation in the last 20 years. Yet, in the new phase of their relations today, neither side has taken major step that determines the direction of their future relationship. There is now uncertainty that lies between the phoenix and the dragon.

The political and security tension over Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is indeed one of the factors that may define Sino-Japanese relations. The difference in Japanese and Chinese claims over the territory surfaced a few decades ago but has never harmed the overall relationship between them. However, the islands have now become a source of rivalry as both sides responded arbitrarily and uncompromisingly to the boat collision incident in 2010 and the events that followed it. Their failure in managing this subtle diplomatic challenge exacerbated mutual mistrust between the two states.

The Japanese government would make further efforts to maintain its administration over the islands by increasing its defense capabilities. China’s decade-long military expansion has already given incentives for that. The Chinese government also continues to challenge the status quo to respond to such Japanese actions. Doing so also allows China to meet its growing demand for the potential seabed energy resources in the area, to keep the tension with Japan as a scapegoat for domestic social dissatisfaction and power struggles, and to justify the apolitical yet diplomatic problem-causing activities of fishermen. Any active attempts to fulfill their own interests over the islands would only weaken the relationship and possibly destroy the overall bilateral friendship. After all, the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands refer to their national sovereignty and therefore allow neither side to compromise, especially given the mistrust.

However, reciprocity exists between Japan and China. Most notably, they complement each other’s economy. Japan has long invested in and exported interim commodities to China, and China has in return produced final commodities both to consume in the vast domestic market and exported final commodities back to Japan. In this relationship, whereas Japan has created an efficient production line, China has obtained a driving force for its development. Indeed, the situation has changed or is now undergoing changes. China’s economic development has enabled it to more independently produce goods for the domestic and foreign markets and even to invest in Japan. Even so, Japan has continued to export high-tech products, know-hows, and quality services, for which China has growing demands. Japan’s investment has also created considerable local job opportunities that China cannot afford to lose given the millions of migrant workers.

In terms of regional security as well, Japan and China share interests. North Korea has not only pursued nuclear armament but also launched missiles from time to time despite international pressure and sanctions particularly by the United States. The six-party talks from 2003 to 2007 achieved little, despite high expectations, mostly because of the participants’ different interests. Opinions on how to manage North Korea seem to vary even within South Korea, which is under the most immediate threat. It has to reconsider a long-held national dream, the reunification of the two Koreas, because of an unimaginable socio-economic chaos as a result. Indeed, Japan wants their abductees back from North Korea and an explanation for the issue first while China is more concerned about North Korean refugees into China. However, these two countries most clearly have a shared interest in the stability and the alleviation of the insecurity of North Korea.

Health and environmental issues also urge Japan and China to cooperate. Northeast Asia has witnessed the outbreaks of lethal diseases that could cause regional pandemic, such as the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) in 2002-2003, avian flu in 1997 and 2004, and so forth. China’s serious environmental pollution as a trade-off for its economic development has caused concerns and health problems not only in the country but also in Japan. They need an immediate dialogue on how to manage these common challenges as well as how to learn from Japan’s similar experiences of tackling pollution in the 1960s and 1970s.

The key to utilize Sino-Japanese reciprocity in these fields lies in societal exchanges free of political interests. The two governments can pursue cooperation and enjoy the mutual benefits from it only if both societies can develop the mindset that recognizes the reciprocity as well as the risks otherwise. On a superficial level, Japanese society has to widen its door for the Chinese people whereas the Chinese society has to develop its moral and cultural attractiveness. On a fundamental level, both sides have to overcome the lack of mutual understandings that has increased, as new generations emerge with less familiarity and increased selective information about each other than those before them. By promoting private exchanges from individual to local governmental levels while refraining from pursuing short-term political interests, the two states would be able to find more diplomatic options and thereby act more flexibly to achieve those benefits.  The two societies are to determine whether the dreaming dragon and reviving phoenix can live together in a fantasy or just turn to be imaginary.

*Teruo Katsukawa is currently a second year graduate student pursuing a MA in Diplomacy and International Relations at John C. Whitehead School of Diplomacy and International Relations as well as a MA in Asian Studies at the College of Arts and Sciences, Seton Hall University. While broadly studying related subjects, Teruo is particularly focusing on contemporary Sino-Japanese relations.  Teruo graduated Soka University of America with a BA in Liberal Arts.

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