Strengthening the Triangle: China-Japan-US Rapprochement

Akihiko Tanaka
June 1997

The views of prominent Japanese thinkers on current policy issues, which are not normally accessible to an international audience because of the language barrier, have been translated and made available through JCIE’s Global Thinknet Insights. This piece is by Akihiko Tanaka, Associate Professor at the Institute of Oriental Culture, University of Tokyo.

The trilateral relationship between Japan, the United States, and China has been shaken as a consequence of the cataclysmic changes in world politics since 1989. But for the first time since the end of the cold war, the trilateral relationship is likely to regain stability: the improved rapport between Washington and Tokyo, as well as that between Tokyo and Beijing, has taken a decided turn for the better. Moreover, the somewhat hysterical voices warning of the Chinese threat are rapidly losing their steam.

We can cite only a few cases in modern history of years in which major nations took critical steps toward stabilizing their relations with the outside world. Nineteen-fifty and 1972 are two obvious candidates for such epoch-making years. In June 1950, the outbreak of the Korean War put the United States and China at loggerheads, a development that lent a decisive impetus to the formation of U.S.-Japan security arrangements. As a result, the framework under which China confronted Japan and the United States was firmly established in that year. In 1972, President Nixon staged a dramatic rapprochement with China, paving the way for Japan and China to normalize their relations. Since then the trilateral relationship maintained stability through its concerted confrontation vis-à-vis the Soviet Union.

Vital interests of Japan are served by maintaining amicable relationships with both the United States and China. It is highly desirable for Japan to do everything it can to stabilize and to improve this trilateral relationship. But what, concretely, should be done?

The 1989 Cataclysm

We need to go back to 1989 to take stock of the present trilateral relationship and to analyze the reasons why the relationship is still shaky. The first blow that brought about today’s turmoil in international politics was dealt in 1989. A series of dramatic events that took place in that year has influenced, directly and indirectly, many of today’s problems in the trilateral relationship.

First, in the global political context, the cold war came to a decisive end in 1989. In the aftermath of the fall of the Berlin Wall in November, one communist regime after another collapsed in Eastern Europe. The Tiananmen Incident happened on June 4. Former Communist Party Chairman Zhao Ziyang, who had shown a lenient posture toward the protesting groups demanding democratization, was expelled from the Chinese power structure when the People’s Liberation Army moved in. The rise of the former mayor of Shanghai, Jiang Zemin, to the party chairmanship is attributed to the fact that he had almost no involvement in the incident. In Japan, the death of Emperor Hirohito marked the end of the Showa era that lasted for 65 years. This was followed by the resignation of Prime Minister Noboru Takeshita in connection with the Recruit Corporation political bribery case, the fall of the subsequent Uno administration, which took responsibility for a geisha scandal and for defeat in the House of Councillors election held in July, and the start of a new cabinet under Prime Minister Toshiki Kaifu. Although political upheavals of such cataclysmic magnitude as seen in China and Japan did not take place in the United States, President George Bush took over the reign of the Reagan administration, which had lasted for eight years and had ushered in a new era.

International politics in East Asia—and the Tokyo-Washington-Beijing triangle in particular—has been continuously shaken in the wake of the sweeping changes in the global scene in 1989. The aftershocks of the 1989 cataclysm continued to have important ramifications for the Tokyo-Washington, Washington-Beijing, and Tokyo-Beijing relationships for years to come.

We can divide these aftershocks into two main categories. The first is that the end of the cold war introduced an element of instability to the characterization of power in the modern global system. Although it produced an extremely favorable result as a whole in terms of realizing a more peaceful global system, the end of the cold war also added complexity to international politics: It became more difficult to draw a clear picture of what factors were at work in the formation of the post-cold war power structure. No one really understood how power was to be distributed among nations. As a result of the disappearance of the threat of the Soviet Union, the United States found itself in the position of the world’s sole superpower. Amid these developments, many Americans in positions of power began to focus on the potential threats posed by other nations; each time this focus was shifted, the aftereffects of those shifts influenced the trilateral relationship.

The second type of aftershock was generated in the domestic politics of the three nations. The political focus of each nation had shifted—as a matter of course—to the domestic scene, as a result of the diminished external threat. Consequently, domestic factors have played a much bigger role in international politics. The domestic politics of each of the three nations, moreover, has been extremely unsettled, and the trilateral relationship has been affected every time major changes occur in the domestic policies of each nation.

The End of the Japanese Threat

Implausible as it sounds today, in 1989 many Americans regarded Japan as their greatest potential threat. They argued that the dynamics of world power had shifted from geopolitics to geoeconomics; economic power, not military power, could now be considered as the biggest danger to U.S. interests. Many Americans feared that Japanese money would gobble up all their assets. In 1989, Mitsubishi Estate acquired the Rockefeller Center, and Sony purchased Columbia Pictures. James Fallows, a prominent American journalist, published his extremely influential series of articles, “Containing Japan,” in the Atlantic Monthly that year.

The United States began to “get tough” with Japan in that year as well. In May 1989, just before Tiananmen, the U.S. government named Japan as a target of trade negotiations under the so-called Super 301 clause of the 1988 Omnibus Trade Competitiveness Act. A few months later, the Bush administration proposed to Japan to set the SII (Structural Impediments Initiative) talks in motion.

Many Japanese around this time began gradually to take a critical view of the “high-handed” American policies. The publication of The Japan That Can Say No by Shintaro Ishihara and Akio Morita bore testimony to such Japanese sentiment. An unofficial English translation of the book was quickly produced by U.S. government staff and was widely distributed among Washington insiders. This pirated edition quickly found its way to Tokyo and was read by many influential people involved in U.S.-Japan affairs.

At this stage, China was not yet perceived as a grave threat to the United States. But the Tiananmen Incident quickly changed that. This change in American attitude toward China, however, probably had more to do with the move toward democratization in China; many Americans did not have misgivings about the possibility of China becoming a major future power. On the contrary, many held the view that chaos would continue for some time in China. While Congress maintained an antagonistic posture toward China, the Bush administration judged that China should not be left in isolation. In the wake of Tiananmen, Brent Scowcroft, assistant to the president on national security affairs, dispatched Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence Eagleburger to China on a secret mission. These same two high-ranking government officials visited China again in December.

Why was Washington making these overtures to Beijing? One theory holds that the United States was hoping for Chinese support in a possible confrontation with Japan. According to a report published in Japan’s largest newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, former President Nixon was quoted from a memorandum he wrote when visiting China in late 1989: “Japan is an economic superpower with potential of becoming a military and political superpower. We need a strong and stable China with strong American ties to strike a balance vis-à-vis Japan and the USSR.” However, we have no evidence to indicate that this perception of a Japanese threat was a major factor in the motivation of the Bush administration for improving relations with China.

Nevertheless, that those people originally involved in the formulation of American policy toward China had such misgivings suggests the possibility that they really did think that Japan and not China would pose a greater menace to the future security of the United States. The United States was concerned about a Japanese threat not in the strategic and military context but in the economic and technological context. Consequently, U.S. response to Japan focused on trade negotiations. The Bush administration was, however, strongly committed to the concept of free trade; it thus did not make an outright demand at the SII talks for an expanded American share of the Japanese market. Instead, it asked Japan to reform its markets on its own initiative so that American companies could gain access on an equal footing.

Although President Bush enjoyed an unprecedented 90 percent support rate in the immediate wake of the Gulf War, his popularity had quickly dwindled by late 1991, and many began to doubt his chances of victory in the next year’s presidential election. To make matters worse, Republican candidate Richard Thornburg, a former U.S. Attorney General, unexpectedly lost in a senatorial election in Pennsylvania. This gave rise to harsh criticism that Bush was neglecting domestic politics.

Caught off guard, Bush canceled a planned official visit to Japan. However, faced with yet more attacks, Bush reconsidered the matter and announced that he would visit Japan to “improve the American economy.” In January 1992, accompanied by a large group of executives representing the American auto industry, President Bush came to Japan. Domestically he was campaigning hard under the slogan of “Jobs, Jobs,” and applied pressure on the Japanese government to announce its objectives for voluntary efforts to purchase American auto parts. Unfortunately the visit was not a pleasant one for Bush: he ended up vomiting on the lap of Prime Minister Miyazawa while at an Imperial Banquet and had to retire early.

U.S.-Japan relations took yet another turn for the worse after his return. Sakurauchi, Speaker of the House of Representatives at the time, provoked a strong American reaction by stating that America should not lose its self esteem by begging Japan for exports and becoming subcontractors for Japanese automakers. Besides, he said, the quality of American workers is low; about 30 percent of them are illiterate. “In such a country, you cannot make high quality goods,” he was quoted as saying.

Bill Clinton won the 1992 election by stressing the importance of the economy, and the new administration adopted a more results-oriented policy toward Japan. In the summer of 1992, Japanese politics underwent a series of upheavals when Shin Kanemaru, vice president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, admitted that he had violated the Political Funds Control Law. The rule of the Liberal Democratic Party, which had continued since the grand coalition of the two major conservative forces in 1955, was losing its iron grip on power. That autumn, followers of Noboru Takeshita—the largest faction by far of the LDP—split, and the Diet went into gridlock in confrontation over the issue of a political reform bill. A vote of no-confidence in the Miyazawa Cabinet was passed on June 18, 1993. General elections were held in August, leading to the birth of the Hosokawa Cabinet.

In July 1993, amid the continuing political turmoil, President Clinton visited Japan to attend the Tokyo Summit conference. He wanted to establish a tangible criteria of progress in an effort to create a new framework for U.S.-Japan trade negotiations. Even though the majority of Japanese industry members resisted this idea, Prime Minister Kiichi Miyazawa, who did not want to rupture the conference at the final stage of his administration, and Japan’s Foreign Ministry tried to reach a compromise. The U.S.-Japan Framework Talks on bilateral trade were thus set up. The communiqué issued at the time was extremely ambiguous: while it called for the establishment of “objective criteria,” in testing the results of the new policies, it also limited the scope of the talks to matters on which the governments could respond and bear responsibility.

For Prime Minister Morihiro Hosokawa, who took leadership on a platform calling for deregulation, market transparency, and emphasis on the interest of consumers, the American demand for results-oriented and numerically defined trade objectives ran counter to his basic stance. This marked difference was clearly manifest in the U.S.-Japan summit talks held in Washington in February 1994. Hosokawa refused to compromise with the Americans, essentially becoming “the prime minister who could say ‘no.'” While Hosokawa and some cabinet members argued that the relationship of the two nations had reached a sufficiently mature stage that Japan could really say No to American demands, others were concerned about the future of the bilateral relationship.

Meanwhile, the chaos in Japan’s domestic politics continued. In April 1994, Tsutomu Hata formed a cabinet that ran just two months; the Socialist Party had deserted the coalition in June. In July, Tomiichi Murayama, a Socialist Party leader, surprised the world by assuming the post of prime minister with the backing of the LDP.

Washington had apprehensions at first on how Murayama would deal with the issue of Japan-U.S. security arrangements. This concern was dispelled when Murayama promised Clinton, at the Venice Summit conference, that Japan would uphold its security arrangements with the United States. At the same time, both Clinton and Murayama maintained the past policies toward trade negotiations. The U.S.-Japan auto trade negotiations that followed in Geneva in some ways resembled the tension-ridden atmosphere of the disarmament talks with the Soviet Union. The U.S. side drove Japan into a corner by threatening to levy a 100-percent retaliatory tariff on Japanese luxury cars. Japan refused to back down, and the negotiations ended in late June 1995.

Not long after that, public attention to U.S.-Japan relations and to bilateral trade issues was distracted yet again. By the time the auto talks ended, Japan was in a situation totally different from that in 1989. The economy recorded zero-growth three consecutive years following the rupture of the “bubble” economy in 1992. Influxes of money from Japan that had not so long ago bought up high-profile assets on a worldwide scale were nowhere to be found. The perception of a Japanese threat was dispelled. Although the theory that economics and technology constitute the foundation of power in the post-cold war era was not negated, the view of Japan becoming such a power clearly needed revision.

The Dual Meaning of the Nye Report

China’s rapid emergence as a major power in the post-cold war world gave rise to the perception of a Chinese threat. Chinese literature on the subject often cites Professor Tomohide Murai of the Japanese National Defense Academy as the originator of this concept. Murai took up this issue in his thesis published in the Shokun! magazine in 1990. As I mentioned above, China at the time was not widely considered a threat, even in the ensuing period after Tiananmen. On the contrary, some Americans expressed hope that the excitement generated by the end of the cold war might accelerate the democratization of China. A certain paternalistic view to the effect that the U.S. needed to support China in improving its human rights situation-since China was then perceived as a developing country and the United States was not concerned about the possibility of China assuming the stature of a major power-gained popularity. The relationship between Washington and Beijing has since then been characterized by the ritually repeated debate every year over the issue of whether China should be granted “most-favored nation” trade status. Hard-liners in Congress argued that the United States should suspend China’s MFN status unless it improved its domestic human rights record. This argument struck a strong chord among the majority of Congress, who apparently believed that the United States had nothing to lose by offending China.

The Bush administration opposed this line of thinking. They considered China to be strategically important and insisted that, if the MFN status was suspended, a serious blow would be dealt to Hong Kong. It would also, they believed, cause a backlash by putting pressure on Chinese engaged in external trade. However, Bush could not make a strong case concerning the strategic importance of China. Meanwhile, Clinton attacked Bush’s policy toward Japan in the 1992 election campaign and pledged that, if elected, he would link human rights in China with MFN status.

During the 1992 U.S. election process, China was undergoing a period of major change. The Chinese economy started to expand rapidly after bridging over the vacuum created by Tiananmen. After posting growth rates of 4.4 percent and 4.1 percent in 1989 and 1990, respectively, the Chinese economy staged a spectacular rise in 1991 and 1992, more than doubling the growth rate to record 8.2 percent and 13.4 percent, respectively. Moreover, estimates of China’s gross national product made by the World Bank and International Monetary Fund attracted worldwide attention. The World Bank estimated China’s GDP, on the basis of purchasing power parity, to be almost 2 trillion dollars, or five times larger than the GDP calculated on the basis of the exchange rate. Combining this GDP estimate with the growth rate, some economists have predicted that China will overtake not only Japan but also the United States in the early years of the next century, becoming the world’s greatest economic power in the process.

Another factor giving rise to the perception of a Chinese threat was the marked increases in China’s defense budget. According to government figures, China expanded military expenditures by nearly 15 percent annually since 1989. It is widely believed that the government statistics do not reflect accurately the actual scale of China’s military expenditures. Even highly conservative Beijing leaders have admitted that their military expenditures are growing at an annual rate of 15 percent. This has led to the conjecture that the actual size of the Chinese military budget could exceed the government figures by a wide margin. China has shown a strong interest in the purchasing of Soviet-made weapons offered at bargain prices in the aftermath the cold war. Rumor had it that China was even acquiring aircraft carriers and had actually bought SU-27 fighter planes in 1992.

The activities of the Chinese government and statements by Chinese naval officials aroused concern in other countries. For instance, the “Law Concerning the Territorial and Adjoining Waters of the People’s Republic of China” promulgated in February 1992 decreed territorial rights on the Nansha and Senkaku islands. At the same time, Chinese military officials began stressing the importance of the navy and airforce in their speeches and papers. In 1993, China amended part of its constitution and declared “wealth and power” as its national objective. For the Chinese people who consider themselves victims of aggression by the Western powers and Japan in modern history, a wealthy and powerful China was seen as a quite reasonable national goal. China’s neighbors don’t quite see it that way, of course; some see it as proof of China’s territorial ambitions.

This perceived Chinese threat was not immediately reflected in the policies of Tokyo and Washington. The miraculous economic growth of China raised expectations for business opportunities in a fantastically large market. In 1993, the Clinton administration failed in negotiations it initiated with China that tried to link MFN status with human rights. When Secretary of State Warren Christopher visited China, Beijing made it clear that it had no intention to give in to Washington’s demand: it promptly placed several individuals suspected of “antigovernment” activities under house arrest. Nevertheless, the U.S. government continued granting MFN status, and announced that it would no longer link human rights issues with trade policy. This decision was made against the background of America’s increasing investments in, and exports to, China. The suspension of MFN status would not only offend China-it would deal a severe blow to American businesses.

China gained the upper hand by flashing a key trump card: its gigantic market. This success of Chinese diplomacy, however, intensified the perceived threat by China. It was inevitable, therefore, that this potential menace of China would be reflected in a review of security strategy, which began in the summer of 1994 in Washington. The “East Asia Strategic Review” (also known as the the Nye Report) was prepared in February 1995 as part of the reassessment process of U.S. strategy in East Asia.

The Nye Report presented two perspectives from the standpoint of the Tokyo-Washington-Beijing triangle. It first pointed out the need to reconstruct U.S.-Japan relations, which had heretofore been excessively biased toward economic cooperation. Second, the report raised the question of how the United States should deal with the emerging power of China. The United States had to come to grips with these two issues amid changes in the international balance of power in 1995 and 1996.

The Nye Report proposed that the United States not consider the emerging power of China a threat; it should, rather, initiate “constructive engagement.” However, the actual American response to this problem was wildly inconsistent. One typical example of this confusion became apparent when President Lee Teng-hui of Taiwan paid an official visit to Washington. Initially the U.S. State Department had no intention of receiving Lee as an official guest. State Department sources suggested that Christopher had conveyed this policy to Chinese Foreign Minister Qian Qichen. However, there was strong support, especially in Congress, for Lee, who had promised to hold a democratic presidential election in 1996 and who was regarded as a “test case” on the move toward democracy in Taiwan. A resolution to welcome Lee was passed in Congress by an overwhelming majority. The White House succumbed to this pressure and did an about-face.

I don’t need to explain recent developments in detail. China again began military maneuvers in the Taiwan Strait, including missile launch tests conducted just before the Taiwanese presidential election in March 1996. The United States responded by dispatching two aircraft carriers, and the tension mounted. The need for the “containment” of China set the tone of the American political debate. China reacted with hostility. A blockbuster book entitled The China That Can Say No was published in 1996. In the fall of the same year, another provocative book, The Containment of China, sold like hotcakes in Beijing bookstores.

The Deterioration of Japan-China Relations

In the wake of the cold war, tensions heightened between all three countries, but it was Tokyo-Beijing relations that suffered the most setbacks. With each perceiving the other as a potential threat, it is hardly surprising that the discord grew. Japan, however, maintained normal relations for some time with China after the Tiananmen Incident. The Chinese leadership appreciated the fact that it was only Japan that made efforts to restore rapport with China, which found itself suddenly isolated in the international community. Despite the many remaining contentious issues between the two nations, Emperor Akihito visited China in 1992. However, Japan-China relations took a decisive turn for the worse in 1995–1996.

While the threatening image each had of the other certainly didn’t help the situation, domestic politics in both nations had a stronger influence on the deterioration of bilateral relations. Japan went on the critical offensive in 1995, while roles were reversed the next year as China bitterly denounced Japan’s “imperial” tendencies. To put it more precisely, this antagonism grew not between the central governments but among various groups in both nations. In 1995, the focus on Japan’s antagonism was set in the Diet resolutions marking the 50th anniversary of the end of the war and with China’s continued nuclear tests. Although the Chinese leadership expressed its strong displeasure with the Diet resolutions, their reaction was remarkably restrained. On the other hand, Japan’s Sakigake party and some members of the LDP harshly denounced China’s nuclear testing. In response to this criticism, the Japanese government essentially freezed its entire program of free aid for China. Some groups demanded the freeze of yen-denominated loans to China, and criticized the weak-kneed attitude of the Foreign Ministry toward China.

China got tough on Japan in the summer of 1996. It objected specifically to Prime Minister Hashimoto Ryutaro’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine to pay homage to the war dead, an act China construed as a gesture of approval for Japanese aggression in China. At the same time, the construction of a lighthouse by a Japanese right-wing organization on the Nansha Islands provoked angry protests among journalists and pro-democracy groups in Hong Kong. The Chinese government also denounced Japan for the lighthouse construction but, judging from its behavior, it was apparent that Beijing did not want it to become a political hot potato. The Chinese leadership was much more concerned about the forging of a U.S.-Japan united front against China, especially from a long-term perspective: Prime Minister Hashimoto and President Clinton had just issued a “Joint Statement on Japan-U.S. Security” in April 1996. The Chinese were apprehensive about the move to “redefine” U.S.-Japan relations, worrying that that two countries were forming an alliance with the express intent of “containing” China.

The China That Can Say No, along with other books recently published in China and critical toward the United States, also contains some harsh words for Japan. This can be regarded as a backlash of Chinese public opinion against the perceived threat of China put forward in Japan and in the United States. In 1996, relations deteriorated not only between the United States and China but also between Japan and China.

Stabilizing Factors in the Trilateral Relationship

The trilateral relationship between Japan, the United States, and China has been fairly precarious since the end of the cold war, but it has grown especially so in the past two years. What can change this situation and stabilize the triangle? As mentioned at the outset, I believe that the United States and China may move toward rapprochement and that the trilateral relationship will regain stability. Why?

We first need to take the domestic politics of each nation into account. The further development of unstable conditions is always looming on the horizon, but the domestic politics of each nation appears to be more stabilized at the moment. President Clinton was reelected, and Prime Minister Hashimoto clinched control of he Upper House of the Diet with his election. Barring the development of serious scandals that could trip Clinton up, the administration will probably tread on a fairly stable path throughout his final term, since the president no longer has elections to think about. On the other hand, the second Hashimoto Cabinet—though it may appear unstable, with its temuous grip on power without an LDP majority—is on a much firmer footing when compared with its three coalition-governed predecessors. In China, Jiang Zemin is believed to have consolidated his power base, and the misgivings about uncertainty in the post-Deng Xiaoping era appear to have been considerably dissipated. I believe that the current Chinese leadership has secured a stable position by winning the confidence of various groups, including the military.

The current domestic politics in each of the three nations is far more stabilized in comparison to the past. Leaders are likely to maintain consistent diplomatic policies. This is the first factor that can lead to the stabilization of a future trilateral relationship.

The second factor is the change in the perception of power. With the end of the cold war, the “threat of Japan” first became a serious issue, especially in the United States, followed by the “threat of China.” These attitudes can be attributed to a biased perception of power brought about by the cataclysmic changes in international relations in the aftermath of the cold war. I sense that these emotional reactions are now calming down. Even though the threat of China is still perceived to be stronger than that of Japan, it appears that exaggerated opinions are giving way to a more balanced assessment.

Speaking in very broad terms, we find that, since the end of the cold war, economic power has not completely replaced military power, despite claims to the contrary. The United States, with its currently booming economy, is not necessarily losing ground to Japan, as many others have claimed. Even if China is achieving spectacular economic growth, it is not realistic to assume that China will become the greatest economic power of the world in the early years of the next century. Moreover, based on the current military strength of China, it is unlikely that the country poses an immediate threat to U.S.-Japan security arrangements. Beijing expressed the concern that the Joint Statement issued in April 1996 contains antagonistic views against China. In the long run, however, this statement provided an opportunity to rectify the misconception of power in the post-cold war era; this, it seems to me, will lead to the stability of this trilateral relationship. The Joint Statement was aimed primarily at showing that the bilateral relationship maintains a firm foundation, despite trade frictions between the two countries. It sought, furthermore, to assure that Japanese economic power will neither disrupt world order nor undermine the framework of international relations.

Second, the Joint Statement signified that China does not present a threat to any nation in Asia Pacific as long as Japan and the United States maintain stable relations. When Chinese power is assessed in the light of a firmly established U.S.-Japan alliance, it is clear that no one needs to feel threatened by China.

These two factors—the direction toward stability in domestic politics and a more accurate perception of power—are opening up the possibility of stabilizing the trilateral relationship for the first time since the end of the cold war.

The Need to Reassure China

Despite these trends toward stability, the trilateral relationship will not stabilize and strengthen if we sit idly by. Paying lip service to friendship does not bring about stability in the true sense of the word. In this connection, I would like to raise the following three points.

First, stability in the trilateral relationship is predicated on the strong initiative of the leaders of the three nations. Japan and the United States should convince the Chinese leadership that the Joint Statement is not targeted at China. Provided they have stable relationships, Tokyo and Washington feel secure vis-à-vis China, but Beijing may nonetheless take it as an alliance “against” China. The trilateral relationship will not stabilize if China feels that way. Japan and the United States therefore need to place maximum emphasis on the “reassurance” of rapprochement in their China policies. At the same time, the Chinese leadership should stop taking an overly critical view of the Joint Statement. One ironic possibility: If Beijing, in the face of emphatic denials to the contrary from Japan and the United States, continues to insist on thinking of itself as the target of the Joint Statement, it may lend an impetus for a true U.S.-Japan “united front” against China, the very situation Beijing originally predicted and feared.

Japan, for its part, needs to change its rigid stance toward China. It is important that Japan develop critical views toward China’s militaristic behavior. The decision of the Japanese government to stop free aid to China as a symbolic gesture against continued nuclear testing is, I think, a good start. However, Tokyo has not shown any willingness to reconsider the aid issue despite Beijing’s claims that nuclear testing has been suspended. Japan should be ready to modify its stance whenever China does what it says it will do: Japan can give clear demonstrations that it responds positively when China meets its previous obligations and promises.

Second, stability is enhanced when the leaders of the three nations conduct more and better exchanges of views. It is an important step in this direction, therefore, that agreements on mutual visits have been reached at Japan-China and U.S.-China meetings during the APEC summit conference in November 1996. Japan-U.S.-China summit talks should be encouraged.

Third, the mindset of many Japanese toward the U.S.-China dialogue needs to change. We should not look at the progress of their bilateral relationship with suspicion, as some do, or fear that Japan will be left behind; U.S.-China rapprochement is the foundation of a stable trilateral relationship. On the other hand, we should be concerned about the decline in pro-Chinese experts and, in particular, pro-Chinese politicians in Japan. As already pointed out, merely paying lip service to friendship does nothing to stabilize the trilateral relationship. Japan does not need to have a “Sinophile” political group. In reality, however, few people in Japan today consider themselves to be “pro-Chinese.” Rather than worrying about U.S.-China rapprochement, Japan needs to deepen its contacts and involvement with China.

If we observe these guidelines, the trilateral relationship should stabilize. By “stabilization” I obviously do not refer to the total disappearance of disputes or achievement of unconditional friendship. The political systems are very different between China on the one hand and Japan and the United States on the other; misunderstandings and occasional frictions are inevitable. Moreover, in the democratic societies of Japan and the UnitedStates, differing views and opinions simply can’t be suppressed. In China, freedom of speech is steadily expanding, as seen in the publication of The China That Can Say No. With the spread of advanced communications technology, opinions all along the political and economic spectrums transmitted by this media will inevitably influence developments in international relations.

When we consider the characteristics of power in the post-cold war era, we need to recognize the fact that, while China is not so powerful or ambitious as to pose a serious threat to other nations, it definitely won’t meekly follow the arbitrary dictates of any another nation, including the United States. In addition, no matter how disagreeable China may find U.S. positions, the United States is clearly the world’s only superpower and largest export market for China. As for Japan, it is evident that the theory of its threat to the post-cold war world is no longer tenable. On the other hand, the view that “Japan can contribute to world peace only when it does nothing,” as the authors of The China That Can Say No put it, is equally off-base.

Leaders of the three countries can and should take bold initiatives for maintaining stability in their relationships. Stabilization in today’s world requires top priority to be given to maintaining the trilateral relationship, in the face of different opinions expressed by domestically oriented concerns.

The year 1997 marks the 25th anniversary of President Nixon’s visit to China and the normalization of the Japan-China relationship. If we can further stabilize the trilateral relationship in the coming years, sustainable peace and prosperity can become a reality in the Asia-Pacific region. Conditions have improved, and we have much justification for optimism. But further efforts by all Japanese, Chinese, and Americans—as well as some additional wisdom and vision from our leaders—are necessary to pull it off.

Copyright © 1997 Japan Center for International Exchange. All Rights Reserved.