The U.S.-Japan-China Triangle: Building a Path to Trilateral Cooperation

January 22, 2014

Gerald Curtis
, Burgess Professor of Political Science, Columbia University; Member of the Board of Directors of Japan Society
Jia Qingguo, Professor and Dean of the School of International Studies of Peking University
Alan Romberg, Distinguished Fellow and Director of East Asia program, the Henry L. Stimson Center
Yoshihide Soeya, Japan Scholar, Asia Program, the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars; Director, Institute of East Asian Studies and Professor of Political Science, Faculty of Law, Keio University, Japan

Donald Zagoria
, Senior Vice President and Project Director, Forum on Asia-Pacific Security, the National Committee on American Foreign Policy

On January 22, 2014, Japan Society welcomed a distinguished panel of foreign policy scholars to a discussion of the complex trilateral relationships between the U.S., Japan and China.

Donald Zagoria of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy, who moderated the discussion, underscored the timeliness of the evening's topic. Tensions between Japan and China over territorial and historical issues "have grown in recent weeks, as China declared an air defense zone over the disputed territory, and Japan's Prime Minister Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine."

"Clearly, there is an urgent need for cool heads to prevail. Japan Society has fortunately assembled four of the coolest-headed and clearest-thinking analysts in the United States, Japan and China to discuss recent events, and hopefully to chart a more cooperative path forward."

In fact, Dr. Zagoria said with a twinkle, "We had a 20-minute discussion upstairs before we came down here and we have solved all the major issues. We will see how far we get down here."

Jia Qingguo, Peking University

Jia Qingguo, Dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, turned a critical eye on Chinese and Japanese approaches on the islands and the dilemma of Yasukuni.

"At the moment, I think the biggest obstacle to peaceful management of the Diaoyu Islands is Japan's refusal to acknowledge the fact that the Diaoyu Islands are a disputed territory," Dr. Jia said. "A dispute is a dispute. China has never given up the Diaoyu Islands as Chinese territory ever since it became a problem. You have to acknowledge the existence of a dispute before attempting to resolve or manage it."

Yet the Diaoyu Islands are uninhabitable, and at least one expert has said it's very unlikely that oil and gas can be found "in a reasonable amount" there. So "what's the point of making such a big fuss about it?" he asked.

Whatever Prime Minister Abe's reasons for visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, "to me he made a big mistake," Dr. Jia continued. "If he wishes to stand up against China, he has chosen the wrong issue. If he wishes to challenge the verdict of the Second World War, it pits Japan against the rest of the world. If he wishes to use this to rally the Japanese support for making Japan a normal country, he may make Japan less normal than it is."

At the same time, "on the history issue, I also think that China has attached too much importance to it," he said. "Whether the Japanese wish to learn a lesson, ultimately it is their business. A friendly reminder is good for Japan, but focusing too much on what the Japanese government says is counterproductive. Instead China should focus on what the Japanese government does, and undertake action on that basis."

"Will China and Japan overcome the current problem and put their relationship on the right track? They have to. But it will take some time," Dr. Jia observed. For domestic political reasons, Japan can't retract its nationalization of the islands. Likewise for domestic political reasons, China can't put an end to its program of sending regular maritime surveillance vessels to the waters near the islands. "I guess in the short run, we're not going to get any formal arrangement over the islands."

"Does that mean that Japan and China might fight a war over the Diaoyu Islands and maritime interests in the East China Sea? Personally I think it's very unlikely," he concluded. "In history, the situation where a small accident led to an uncontrollable conflict is not rare. I think Chinese and Japanese leaders are fully aware of the danger, and are repeatedly reminded of it by others. They will take the necessary measures to stop this from happening. Therefore, the chance for that to happen is really small. With help from the U.S., the chance for that to happen is even smaller."

Yoshida Soeya, Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Keio University

Yoshida Soeya of the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars and Keio University drew the attention of the audience to the long history of Japan's position regarding the Senkaku Islands. This history dates back to at least the summer of 1972, when a document recently discovered by Dr. Soeya in the archives of the Japanese foreign ministry "said in fact what the government is saying today: there is no dispute on this issue. That should be clear as the Japanese position. That was one of the issues that was anticipating the Sino-Japanese diplomatic normalization" that took place in September 1972.

In the years that followed, Dr. Soeya said, Japan in political terms "consistently tried not to touch this issue." It wasn't really that Japan solved the issue, or agreed to shelve it: "It just means you don't touch it." For Japan, "the overall consideration was to work with China in helping Deng Xiaoping's modernization programs" through development assistance by the government as well as direct investment by private firms.

As Michael Yahuda, Emeritus Professor at the London School of Economics, has explained in a recent book, Dr. Soeya continued, "it was Deng Xiaoping who started somehow this history game." Deng's "very courageous, brave, open-door and reform policies" were expected to shake the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. To respond to the challenge, Deng strategically chose history as a new source of the Party's legitimacy and history museums "were established all around China," in the 1980s and in 1985, "China for the first time made an issue about the Yasukuni." Prime Minister Nakasone had visited the shrine on nine previous occasions, but "it was the 10th time that Deng Xiaoping tried to grab this opportunity to make a diplomatic issue out of this."

Since Nakasone's administration, only three prime ministers—Hashimoto, Koizumi and, just recently, Abe—have visited Yasukuni. "To me that means that not visiting Yasukuni is the established norm by the Japanese government no matter what you have in your mind, or no matter what ideological beliefs leaders may have. To repeat, not visiting the Yasukuni is the norm after Nakasone for the last almost 30 years."

"I don't believe any prime minister after Abe will do the same thing. I cannot imagine that. Prime ministers after Abe will again stop visiting. I think this is important in putting this issue somewhat in perspective," Dr. Soeya said.

In a May 2013 interview, Prime Minister Abe, reflecting on the use of military force, Japan's role in international peacekeeping, and emergency response both national and international, said that "even if we amended the constitution and were able to exercise the right of collective self-defense, we would still be in a more limited position than the Canadians."

Abe could have compared Japan with the U.S. and with China, Dr. Soeya pointed out, but he chose Canada. What did he mean? "I would assume he just wanted to say it's not such a big deal.... Every sovereign nation exercises this—the Koreans, Canadians, Australians, Swedish and everybody. But Japan alone limits itself by saying, 'We have the right, but we cannot exercise this.'"

"The right of collective self-defense is about strengthening the alliance. Naturally the U.S. welcomes it. In my view, the Koreans should welcome it, because if the alliance is strengthened, that helps Korean security for sure," he commented.

"The problem is [that Abe's] ideology is somewhat nationalistic rather than international." Abe wants to break the basic constraints imposed after World War II by Article 9 of the Constitution and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty, but "these two pillars are deeply embedded in that history of war," in "that war of aggression."

"As a Japanese observer, I'm confident that this ideology eventually breaking the postwar regime is not going to happen," he said. Abe's attempts to depart from the postwar regime create "confusion rather than any clarity. I think that's why difficult problems between Japan and China are largely psychological rather than real. We may need a psychiatrist rather than a political scientist to solve this issue."

Alan Romberg, Stimson Center
Alan Romberg, Director of the East Asia program at the Stimson Center, confessed that "at this moment it would take a real leap of faith to suggest" that cooperation among the U.S., Japan and China "is going to be possible within the foreseeable future"—notwithstanding "the compelling logic" of such cooperation.

China's rise "has raised the living standard of vast numbers of its people," so quickly and to such an extent as to be "unprecedented in human history." In its external relations, China is "not hegemonist as the Soviet Union was." Yet in the past it has "sponsored armed insurgencies in the region, and in more recent times it has more than occasionally tended to use its growing clout to achieve its objectives, whether through economic or political arm twisting, or enticement, or quasi-military actions."

"While people in the region, including in Japan, understand the importance of China, not just to their economic wellbeing, but to their overall security, and they value that, at the same time they're quite skeptical about China's political and military goals, and they're unhappy about several of its methods."

To get Japan to sit down and talk about the Senkaku Islands issue, "Beijing would need to be willing to suspend its intrusions within the 12 nautical mile sea and air space around the islands. I don't see Beijing willing to do that," Mr. Romberg said.

China's reaction to Abe's December 26 visit to Yasukuni last year has been "provocative" and "unseemly"—a "barrage of demonizing attacks by ambassadors and government spokesmen" who were forced "to act in ways contrary to accepted diplomatic behavior." As a first step toward managing the broader relationship between China and Japan, Beijing will have to cease these tactics and then, "after a necessary interim period... find a way back to the table."

The U.S. "will undoubtedly continue to seek a lowering of the heat on both sides, and a resumption of steps toward at least minimal reconciliation"; however, "I see no role for the U.S. in actually mediating," Mr. Romberg said.

"It would be helpful if Prime Minister Abe clearly signaled that he will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine again as prime minister, and if he personally and directly affirmed his adherence to the Murayama and Kono statements [of 1993 and 1995, respectively] regarding Japan's culpability for past depredations." It would also be helpful "if China then indicated it would be willing to hold a summit meeting either bilaterally or trilaterally including Korea." However, he added, "I don't know how much of this is likely or possible."

"Major concerns and core interests will not change on either side. But governments have choices about how they approach their interests, and maintaining a keen awareness of potential unintended consequences will be essential," Mr. Romberg concluded.

Gerald Curtis, Columbia University

"No one wants war" over the Senkaku Islands, Gerald Curtis of Columbia University remarked. China doesn't; Japan doesn't; the U.S. doesn't want to get the Seventh Fleet involved "to defend uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that both China and Japan claim as their own."

"There has to be a way to get the focus of Sino-Japanese relations away the Senkaku Islands.... The basic formula for a deal is clear," he added. "In order for both sides to back off while saving face Japan needs to modify its position that there is no legal dispute to say that it does recognize that Senkaku is a problem in Sino-Japanese relations that they need to discuss and negotiate. In return, the Chinese would withdraw their patrol ships while those talks are going on. And there should be no haste in concluding them. They can talk this year, next year and for years to come. In other words, they would agree to put this issue back on the shelf and get to issues that are of greater importance in Sino-Japanese relations," questions of economic relations, environment and the like." The reality is that there is no way to resolve the issue of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands and that as long as confrontation continues there is a danger of an accident that could escalate into military conflict.

On Abe's Yasukuni visit, Professor Curtis said that the visit roiled emotions in China and Korea and gave China a propaganda victory that it has been trying to exploit through a worldwide anti-Japan, or rather anti-Abe, campaign. The last thing the U.S. and Japan want to see is Chinese success in driving a wedge between the two. But Abe's ill-advised visit to Yasukuni followed by a public rebuke from the U.S. has done just that."

Prime Minister Abe has drawn an erroneous analogy between Yasukuni and Arlington Cemetery. Yasukuni, unlike Arlington, is not politically neutral." Although it is dedicated to mourn those who died on the battlefield for their country, it also enshrines individuals convicted at the Tokyo war crimes tribunal, houses a museum that takes a political stance in defense of Japan's policies in the Second World War and prominently displays a statue of the Indian judge Radhabinod Pal, the only member of the Tokyo war crimes panel to vote to acquit all the defendants. If the enshrinement of war criminals was transferred to another shrine and if the Yushukan museum were moved off the Yasukuni property there would be no problem with government officials going there. But as it is, prime ministerial visits cause anger among people in countries that were victims of Japanese aggression.

"Mr. Abe is not a militarist," but "a very conservative pragmatist" Professor Curtis said. "As prime minister he has to remember that his obligation is to serve the national interest, not to give voice to personal ideological views that result in increased tensions with neighboring countries and with the U.S."

America's pivot, the rebalancing of its foreign policy to emphasize the importance of Asia, is a good thing but we need to be realistic about the situation there. "The U.S. is the strongest country in the region and will remain so for years to come," Professor Curtis reflected, "but nothing is going to restore the kind of superiority that the U.S. had in the region before China's rise. China's economic and political and military power in the region will continue to grow and to challenge American superiority. This is the new reality that we have to recognize and deal with. And central to doing that is to have a strong U.S.-Japan relationship."


Moderator Donald Zagoria of the National Committee on American Foreign Policy posed a question to the panelists:

What do you think of Gerry Curtis's scenario for a Senkaku deal in which Japan recognizes there is a dispute, and China backs off recognizance around the same time? Is it conceivable?

If Japan were to acknowledge the fact of a dispute, "China probably would ask Japan to cancel its nationalization deal," Dr. Jia said. "This will pave the way for negotiations," but "I don't know what ultimately would follow."

"If I understood what you said, Gerry, what you were calling for was for Japan to acknowledge there's a diplomatic dispute; not a territorial dispute," Mr. Romberg said.

Professor Curtis was somewhat skeptical. "It takes a diplomat to come up with that interpretation," he said.

"But it's a fundamental difference," Mr. Romberg responded. "I don't see China backing off to the extent that you want."

There's a useful model here in the fisheries agreement recently made between Japan and Taiwan, Dr. Soeya said. The agreement "in effect recognized that there is an issue between the two, and so they just stayed away from touching the issue.... In fact, Japan and China did do that in terms of the Fisheries Agreement in 1975 and 2000," so "we have precedents to this."

Audience members joined in the discussion:

I have heard from friends in both Japan and China that the Japanese people today just don't like the Chinese, and the Chinese people today just don't like the Japanese. Are there things that we could do outside of diplomacy and governments that could begin to change that situation?

Professor Curtis said, "I don't buy the idea that the Chinese are necessarily anti-Japanese, or that the Japanese are anti-Chinese. I think these issues that we have been talking about tonight poison the atmosphere, and they're creating a nationalist reaction in both countries, and that nationalist reaction is what's reflected in the public opinion polls."

"But if you can deal with the real issues, I think the public opinion will follow in suit and things will turn around."

What about transferring the property rights of those islands to the UN and making that whole area a World Heritage Site?

"That's not a unique idea," Mr. Romberg responded. It's something to be thinking about, but it couldn't be done at a moment when Japan feels the pressure it now feels from China; "it would be viewed as a surrender."

Dr. Jia said, "I think we are not going to exclude any possible options," this being one of them. Another proposal is that Japan and China set up a joint tourist industry for people who've now heard about the islands and are curious to see them. The central principle is to "develop a peaceful and mutually constructive relationship between the two countries."

Dr. Soeya added, "About this particular proposal, of course everybody should agree that the likelihood is very slim for this to happen.... Both governments treat these issues as purely bilateral, and would resist any attempt to multilateralize the dispute."

—Katherine Hyde

Topics:  Policy

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