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Managing a Changing Relationship: China's Japan Policy in the 1990s

Authored by Prof. Robert S. Ross. | September 1996

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China's Japan policy is a central component of China's overall security policy, rivaling the U.S.-China relationship in importance. As both an economic and potential military great power, Japan has the ability to make a significant contribution to Chinese security. It can contribute to Chinese economic development and become a partner in managing regional security issues in the interest of stability in East Asia and their respective national interests.Alternatively, over the longer term, Japan has the ability to become a major threat to vital Chinese interests. Should Sino-Japanese security relations deteriorate, Tokyo could deny China access to its economic resources, including the Japanese market, and its capital and technology, and it could influence other countries in East Asia to do the same. This would have a significant impact on Chinese economic development and Beijing's long-term military modernization program. Japan could also participate in a regional coalition aimed at China and, most alarming, if it realized its considerable offensive military potential, it could directly influence the regional balance of power and regional diplomacy to China's strategic detriment.

China has a lot at stake in Sino-Japanese relations. To maximize the benefits and minimize the prospects for adverse trends, Beijing must carefully manage the relationship, seeking to consolidate cooperative trends, to avoid the development of unnecessary conflict, and to minimize the impact of basic conflict of interests. Simultaneously, without undermining its cooperative efforts toward Japan, Beijing must also develop the domestic resources necessary to contend with an economically, technologically, and militarily more capable Japan; it has to play catch-up to a potential great power threat. Finally, Chinese policymakers must pay close attention to contemporary trends in Japanese foreign and defense policy, including policy toward China, assessing the impact of changing Japanese policy on Chinese security interests. In response, they must develop a nuanced policy that discourages detrimental trends in Japanese policy while not undermining the prospects for bilateral cooperation.

The challenges of China's Japan policy are considerable. Even under the best of circumstances, Chinese leaders would be hard-pressed to develop a Japan policy that could satisfy these competing demands. Yet, contemporary circumstances make the task all the more difficult. Recent developments in Chinese relations with Taiwan and the United States impact Japanese foreign policy, and domestic politics in Beijing and Tokyo complicate the process of sustaining nuanced foreign policies and cooperative bilateral relations. It is far from clear that, in these complex circumstances, Chinese policymakers have either the diplomatic skill or the political flexibility to meet the challenge of sustaining Sino-Japanese cooperation.


Chinese management of its Japan policy is not only crucial to vital Chinese interests but also to regional stability. Japan has the potential both to contribute to Chinese economic modernization and security and to develop and use regionwide military, political and economic instruments to retard Chinese economic development and to undermine Chinese security. Heightened Sino-Japanese cooperation can underpin regional stability and economic cooperation, but heightened conflict has the potential to polarize all of East Asia into competing blocs, undermining the region's ability to continue its successful pursuit of economic growth and the development of regional stability with multilateral institutions of cooperation. Much is riding on Chinese policy and the course of Sino-Japanese relations.

To protect Chinese security and maintain Sino-Japanese cooperation, Beijing must weave together a wide range of potentially contradictory policies. Its defense policy is a necessary hedge against the possibility of deteriorated relations with a superior economic, technological and even military power.

But China's defense budget and its acquisition of advanced foreign weaponry has the potential to elicit Japanese policy detrimental to Chinese interests. The burden rests on Beijing's bilateral Japan policy to have a countervailing impact on bilateral relations. But, Sino-Japanese relations have become increasingly complex. The end of the Cold War and the decline of LDP dominance in Japanese domestic politics have undermined Tokyo's ability to take the long view of Sino-Japanese relations and to continue to shelve what had been secondary conflicts of interest. The resulting new points of friction, as well as enhanced U.S.-Japan strategic cooperation, have complicated bilateral relations and added an element of doubt to Chinese confidence in Sino-Japanese cooperation.

Complications in Sino-Japanese relations have elicited a more outspoken Chinese policy toward Japan. The Chinese media are once again covering trends considered counterproductive to Beijing, including alleged revival of militarism and Japanese defense spending. They have been critical of elements of Japanese policy toward China, including Tokyo's relationship with Taiwan, its handling of the yen loan program, and its policy on disputed territories. Nonetheless, Beijing continues to evaluate favorably the trend in Japanese foreign policy and its Japan policy reflects this. It has maintained a low-key approach to conflicts of interest, trying to caution Japan from adopting contentious policies, while trying to maintain cooperative relations. Its bilateral Japan policy reflects the cross-cutting pressures that Japan poses to Chinese interests.

If Sino-Japanese relations existed in a vacuum, relations would be relatively easy to manage. But there exists a wide range of external factors (ranging from Chinese treatment of dissidents and the Taiwan issue to U.S.-China and Sino-Russian relations) that could affect Japanese policymaking and redirect the relationship, despite Chinese intentions to maintain stable relations. China's control over the course of these issues is, at times, minimal. At other times, leadership incentive and/or ability to incorporate China's interest in stable Sino-Japanese relations into policymaking is minimal. And affecting the entire spectrum of issues is the fact that Japan is a democracy and Chinese leaders are celebrated for their inability to consider the implications of their own behavior for the politics of China policy in democracies.

Sino-Japanese relations do not exist in a vacuum. Chinese leaders will have to exercise considerable tolerance, patience, and sophistication to maintain cooperative relations with Japan in increasingly complex circumstances. Thus far, they have shown the ability to develop a Japan policy which responds to the numerous challenges to Chinese interests. Nonetheless, given the fact that the challenges will likely grow and relations withJapan will likely become more complex, China's Japan policy and Sino-Japanese relations must be considered one more factor contributing to the uncertainty of Asia after the Cold War.