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Could Sino–Japanese competition benefit Asia?

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In Brief

Sino–Japanese relations haven’t yet escaped from their most difficult period since the normalisation of diplomatic relations. Historical and territorial issues mean that mutual perceptions between these two Asian powers are still in the doldrums. In the context of a shifting balance of power and disagreement over specific regional issues, some Sino–Japanese competition seems inevitable. But how will this affect the region?


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China and Japan are now competing with each other in providing public goods for the region. From a positive perspective, this competition could mean that Asia Pacific countries enjoy a greater choice when forum shopping and an extended menu of regional public goods. For instance, the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank is undoubtedly the primary rival of the China-proposed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. On the other hand, in response to the rapid progress of the One Belt One Road framework initiated by China, the Abe administration has also coined the concept of ‘Quality Infrastructure Investment’. But this could also lead to another spaghetti bowl of overlapping regional governance institutions.

Competition for regional leadership actually provides an opportunity for China and Japan to stop the ever-accelerating ‘appreciation deficit’ felt by both. In the past few years, in both countries there have been profound changes in assessments of the importance of bilateral relations and of the other nation. At the risk of oversimplification, it may be argued that Japan’s status in the Chinese worldview is constantly declining. Japan is less and less important to China in many Chinese people’s eyes. Since the reform period Japan had provided a mirror through which to judge China’s economic growth and social development, but this is gradually becoming a historical memory.

It’s time for both Japan and China to re-evaluate their counterpart’s neighbourhood diplomacy and regional achievements. Throughout its post-World War II history, Japan has offered regional public goods of various kinds that suited its situation at the time. This was critical to Japan’s efforts to promote regional integration and to enforce its own diplomatic strategy as a regional power. China may draw important lessons from Japan’s experience in areas as diverse as disaster relief assistance, water management and medical diplomacy. At the same time, China’s own performance may serve as a good reference for other regional partners as well, Japan included. Although the existence of ‘best practices’ is an open question, we can certainly welcome new practices and better practices.

When it comes to regional leadership, money is not everything. As the historical experience of the British–American power transition shows, it takes some time for comprehensive national strength, and particularly economic power, to translate into the institutional advantage of setting agendas and building institutions. The accumulation and effective exercise of leadership intelligence demands even more time and requires long-term planning. Therefore, Japan will likely continue to utilise its comparative advantage or first-mover advantage in promoting regional cooperation by maintaining, and even increasing, investment in institutional regional public goods. It is also in the interests of Japan’s neighbours to learn from its experience in the spirit of healthy competition, mutual benefit and complementarity to jointly promote the prosperity and stability of the region.

Scholars like Joseph Nye have correctly pointed out that to build ‘alliances, partnerships, and institutions’ is the first pillar in creating and maintaining ‘smart power’. Traditionally, China has been short of both the willingness and capability to engage in regional agenda-setting, rule-making and institution-building. But recently this has been changing. To build a community of shared interests, destiny and responsibility, China is even welcoming other countries to ‘free ride’ on its growth. Beijing is catching up with Washington and Tokyo in terms of hard power. The cooperation and competition for regional leadership offers an arena to practice and sharpen its soft power and smart power.

It is imperative that both China and Japan re-interpret the importance of functional cooperation in regional integration. There has been an undeniable decline in Sino–Japanese cooperation and coordination in many functional areas during the past few years. Functional cooperation itself, either in quantity or in quality, moves at a sluggish pace as the perceived benefits of this cooperation decrease. This also reduces the spill-over effects from functional cooperation, as collaborative efforts are only able to continue in niche sectors, are incapable of rising to higher levels and are limited to ministerial contact. Cooperation in ‘low politics’ is less and less regarded as a necessary political glue.

Ultimately functional cooperation still exerts a cumulative effect on regional identity. It can be carried out at the sub-national and super-national level, minimising tensions over territory, natural resources and other sensitive issues, as we have seen in the cooperation in the Mekong region and the pan-Yellow Sea region. The aggregation and consolidation of common practices at different levels of cooperation could take the region one step towards a verbal or written consensus. Hopefully, the interconnection and overlap of these different cooperative mechanisms will lead to their becoming institutionalised, and eventually contribute to political reconciliation and regional integration.

For China, perceptions of Japan are made up of intertwined identities and images: a former invader and aggressor, a counterpart of long-time exchanges, a model of success, a source of learning and assistance, an indispensible neighbour, and an existing regional power and potential competitor in the same region. Cooperation and competition for regional leadership adds more variables to this complicated and delicate bilateral relationship. China is still adapting and learning how to use its own increasing power. At the same time, Japan and other countries are also coming to terms with and accommodating China’s rising power. There is every reason to wish, for all of these processes, a peaceful, constructive and sustainable future. After all, the Asia Pacific kitchen is big enough to accommodate two chefs.

He Ping is an associate professor of international political economy at the Center for Japanese Studies, Institute of International Studies, Fudan University.

This article appeared in the most recent edition of the East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘Japan-China relations’.

One response to “Could Sino–Japanese competition benefit Asia?”

  1. Thanks for a perspective that I had net seen before. The Asian kitchen is certainly plenty large and diverse enough to benefit from two chefs. If China and Japan could focus more on areas where their resources and talents could complement rather than solely compete with each other, their relationship would improve. And the region would benefit.

    Two examples come to mind. First,the recent competition between them for the construction of high speed rail in Indonesia benefited the latter by affording it some choice. Perhaps Japan could learn how to build less expensive, ‘simpler’ bullet train systems?

    Second, Japan has a highly sophisticated and largely effective system of medical technology and care. It could make this available to China via joint training programs, etc. This would improve China’s medical systems. It could also lead to better, more cooperative relations between the two countries.

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