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U.S.-Japan-China relations are among the most important and complicated trilateral ties in the post-Cold War world. While the U.S.-Japan trade conflict has been largely neutralized by the stagnant Japanese economy, the two countries’ political/military cooperation has been enhanced in recent years. The convergent economic and strategic interests of the United States and China are highlighted by China’s entry into the World Trade Organization and the U.S. war on terrorism, despite the continued strategic competition and dissimilarity of values between the two countries. Sino-Japan relations are still colored by historical animosity and territorial disputes, even though economic cooperation has brought significant benefits to both countries.

How have recent trends and developments influenced each leg of this triangle? What is the impact of history on current relations? What is the balance between globalization led by the United States and regionalism in East Asia? How should one evaluate the U.S. factor in the political, economic and military dimensions of Sino-Japanese relations? To what degree will the United States continue to play a pivotal position in the tripartite relationship, maintaining good relations with both Japan and China? Is Sino-Japanese antagonism likely to diminish in the years ahead? Four experts participated in a March 31 seminar to discuss the U.S.-Japan-China triangle. The four speakers included Ezra Vogel of Harvard University; Gilbert Rozman of Princeton University; Ming Wang of George Mason University, currently a Asian Policy Studies Fellow at the Wilson Center; and Yoshihisa Komori of The Sankei Shimbun. On the next day, Gilbert Rozman and Ming Wan spoke at a breakfast seminar on Capitol Hill on the same topic.

Vogel examined the changing economic relations between Japan and China. According to him, economic integration between the two Asian countries developed significantly after the mid-1980s. However, Japanese company officials operating in China still have serious concerns. In the short run, they face problems with local officials and regulations that hamper their operations. In the long run, they fear that Chinese companies will become competitors and that Japanese firms will be crowded out of the market. Vogel pointed out that the greatest obstacles to effective Sino-Japanese cooperation stem from World War II memories. While Chinese remember atrocities committed by Japanese troops and demand further apologies, the Japanese have begun to feel that no amount of apologies will ever satisfy the Chinese. Happily, the Japanese and Chinese are likely to begin to deal with the historical issue. Vogel suggested that the United States should encourage Japanese and Chinese economic integration and their efforts at reconciliation.

Rozman argued that Americans have reason to regard Sino-Japanese relations as the most important great power relationship not centering on the United States, because mismanaging relations with Beijing and Tokyo could jeopardize U.S strategic goals in East Asia. According to him, observers are prone to view Sino-Japanese relations through one of two lenses: Optimists prefer an image of rapidly accelerating economic regionalism, while pessimists favor instead an angle on great power rivalry. Rozman highlighted two dangerous tendencies that would threaten U.S. interests. One is an assertive Chinese nationalism that undermines mutual trust and regional cooperation. Another is an insensitive Japan that fails to build bridges with its neighbors. Observing China’s “smile diplomacy” toward the Japanese and its efforts at promoting free trade agreements in East and Southeast Asia, Rozman suggested that the United States should encourage these developments, rather than driving the two East Asian powers further apart.

Wan looked at Sino-Japanese political, security and economic interactions. Sino-Japanese political interaction is driven either by cooperation or by conflict at a given time, with more tensions after the mid-1990s. At the same time, the Sino-Japanese security relationship is trending downward. The Economic dimension of the relationship, however, is a bright spot. For the past few years, both Chinese and Japanese governments have made efforts to prevent single issues from dominating the overall relationship, and the relationship has evolved within tolerable boundaries. Wan suggested that politically and strategically, the United States should seek cooperation with Japan while simultaneously adopting cooperative measures toward China, to help improve Sino-Japanese relations. Economically, it is in the U.S. interest to encourage regional integration in East Asia.

Komori argued that a rising China would inevitably pose a challenge for the international status quo in East Asia. Moreover, China’s political system is totally different from the United States and Japan, the two established powers in the region. While recognizing the positive impact of economic exchange on Sino-Japanese relations, Komori also cautioned about the possible hollowing out of Japanese industry due to the swift transfer of capital and technology from Japan to China.

Drafted by Gang Lin, Asia Program Associate
Robert M. Hathaway, Director, Asia Program
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