Sino-Japanese Relations: Rivals or Partners in Regional Cooperation?

Sino-Japanese Relations-Rivals or Partners in Regional Cooperation

Author(s): Niklas Swanstrom, Ryosei Kokubun

ISBN:           978-981-4383-55-4

Publisher: World Scientific Publishing

Year:            2013

Price:         £59.00

Reviewed by Seifudein Adem, Associate Research Professor, Binghamton University, USA

Niklas Swanstrom and Ryosei Kokubun open their fascinating book by making one crucial observation about the relationship between China and Japan: it is not the existence of different interpretation of historical events in both countries which is the major bottleneck for improving bilateral relations but it is the politicization of this difference (p.2).  I think, this is a phenomenon unique to Sino-Japanese relations.

A cooperative relationship between China and Japan is essential for regional and global peace, but there are formidable obstacles which stand in the way of achieving this goal.  And, consequently, in terms of “institutionalized cooperation,” Northeast Asia has the lowest rank among world regions (p. 5).  These general statements unify the analyses.

The book has eleven chapters.  The editors say at the outset that a major objective of the book is “to shed some light on the underlying reasons why it has been difficult to achieve cooperation [between China and Japan] (p. vi).”  The introductory chapter includes a fairly comprehensive list of matters which have bedeviled Sino-Japanese relations over the decades: territorial disputes, competition for energy sources, Japan’s bid to join a reformed UN Security Council as a permanent member, the cross-Strait issue, the US-Japan alliance, the development of missile defense system in Japan, and the steady increase in China’s military spending (p. 2).

In chapter two, Martina Kilmesova zooms in on issues pertaining to history, identity and interest in connection with the impediments to regional cooperation in Northeast Asia.  Kilmesova also outlines four scenarios for sustained regional cooperation in the future and examines which one is more or less likely and preferable from the point of view of China and Japan—and why.  Kilmesova concludes, and I think reasonably, that “enhancing cooperation at the grassroots level and promoting contacts among groups in different, not necessarily political, sectors is essential to building a long-term regional structure with a well-established network of relations between different entities.” (p. 32).  Hiroki Takeuchi’s third chapter is theoretical and, perhaps, excessively so.   The analysis does concern itself with important issues of public opinion and foreign policies in the context of Sino-Japanese relations.  Even when we consider the analysis alone, rather than its theoretical feature, we are still left at some places with either confusing or outright contradictory observations (see for instance pps. 38, 40, 44, 48, 49).

Fu Xiao’s chapter four is a generally positive assessment of Sino-Japanese relations from the Chinese perspective in a time-frame that begins from Prime Minister Abe’s visit to China in 2006.  The discussion is clustered around the three first-tier issues in bilateral relations:   history, territory and Taiwan.  Fu Xiao thus sums up the Japanese dilemma about its relationship with China: “[Japan] wants to strengthen cooperation with China and maintain the latter’s stability, while at the same time it worries about China becoming strong” (p. 62-63).

Peter Gries’s chapter five is about the “American factor” in the relationship between China and Japan.  The author underscores, rightly in my view, that if there would be a conflict between China and the US, it is most likely to be either a result of Sino-Japanese conflict or the Taiwan issue.  He also argues, quite persuasively again, that Japan, the US and China would all benefit from a robust US-Japan alliance.  One issue that may be raised about this chapter pertains to the idea of the “return of history”.   When Francis Fukuyama famously declared the “end of history” in 1989, he never even implied that history would cease to play a role in Sino-Japanese relations.  Actually, Sino-Japanese relations were not Fukuyama’s concern.  In general, focusing on the present, the chapter applies logic and theory to make sense of Sino-Japanese relations.

In chapter six, Yasuhiro Takeda fine-tunes the theoretical concepts of “relative gain” and “relative loss” for the analysis of Sino-Japanese relations in a multilateral context, advocating a triangular relationship among the US, China and Japan. In Chapter seven, Gui Yongtao excellently summarizes the positions of US, China Russia, South Korea and Japan on the North Korea issue.  Gui Yongtao also outlines the variables which undergird those positions.  In chapter eight, Niklas Swanstrom carefully examines the reasons why people are generally skeptical about the prospect of regional cooperation, regional integration and the creation of common identity in Northeast Asia.  In addition to issues pertaining to Sino-Japanese relations, the other factors which continue to hinder cooperation, Swanstrom also reminds us, include the following: South Korea and North Korea are formally at war with each other; Japan’s occupation of Korea is still bitterly remembered; Korean-Chinese tensions are at times high; China’s regional stature seems threatening to the Koreas; and the cross-Strait tension between Beijing and Taipei has divided many governments in the region (p. 132).   Leadership, too, is a contentious issue between China and Japan.  As Swanstrom put it: “It might not be so much the question that any of the states would like to take the lead, but rather that they cannot accept the other state taking the lead.” (p. 136).

Rumi Aoayama’s chapter nine classifies cooperative relationship between China and Japan into three phases and examines the distinguishing features of each.  We learn in this chapter that the effort toward creating a cooperative regional structure is a relatively recent phenomenon in Northeast Asia.  The author concludes: “Asian regional integration consists of many overlapping layers due to the rivalries between the key actors, and the future direction is still not clear…” (p. 165).  The main argument of chapter ten is that the coming to power of Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) in 2009 and the rise of China were significant developments that have had direct relevance for understanding Sino-Japanese relations in recent years.  While DPJ has come and gone, the rise of China continues to be a crucial factor.  In “Power, Soft and Hard”, the last chapter of the book, Shi Yinhong discusses the impact of the perception of decline in the hard and soft power of the US on the regional dynamics in Northeast Asia.

One generalization that can be drawn from this book is that Sino-Japanese relations are uniquely more complex than it is sometimes assumed.  There are also other unique features.  In their respective long histories, this is the first time when Japan and China have both acquired the status of major power at the same time, making it difficult for us to look back at history for clues about the future.  This is one of the unique features of Sino-Japanese relations.

The second uniqueness of Sino-Japanese relations is captured by the catchphrase used to refer to contemporary Sino-Japanese relations: “hot economics and cold politics” or “seirei keirnetsu”.  In many other places, one witnesses just the reverse of “seirei keirnetsu” —“hot politics and cold economics”.   Industrially advanced countries that are politically on friendly terms sometimes declare “trade wars” on each other.

Different authors in the book also stress that Japan and China are unfriendly towards each other.  It must be pointed out that this description is literally true unlike in other cases where states are often personified for analytical convenience.  Japanese and Chinese truly seem to dislike each other even at the grassroots level.  This is the third, and probably most worrisome, aspect of the uniqueness Sino-Japanese relations.

This book was evidently completed before the second (current) Abe administration came to power in 2012.  Even though this is probably a gap in the book, nobody should fault the editors for it.  It is a gap nonetheless because of the remarkable difference between Prime Minister Abe’s attitudes toward China in 2014 compared to 2006.  [Japan’s policy toward China in the first Abe administration anchors some of the analyses in the book.] In general, this is a significant addition to the growing body of literature about Sino-Japanese relations in the recent past and the future.  It is a must read for those who are interested in this field of inquiry.

Suggested citation:

Seifudein Adem (2014). Review of “Sino-Japanese Relations: Rivals or Partners in Regional Cooperation?”, by Niklas Swanstrom and Ryosei Kokubun, East Asian Integration Studies, Vol. 7, no.31.