A Missed Opportunity in U.S. East Asia Policy

It is an imaginative exercise to read speculative accounts of Sino-Japanese relations from earlier in the Koizumi years. No one knew just how bad it would get in the public sphere, and I find that most writers at the time imagined the Koizumi administration and China’s new leadership under Hu Jintao beginning in 2002 would work it out better than they did.

Leave it to an empirical analysis to get a pretty good idea of what was going on. Ming Wan, writing in July 2003 in the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars Asia Program Special Report [pdf], laid out a prescient assessment of the U.S. effect on Sino-Japanese relations and suggested the United States would be wise to work toward reduced China–Japan tensions.

We know what happened instead: Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations are at the height of dysfunction, and only now with Koizumi’s departure is there a feeling of hope, however muddled by Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s support of Koizumi and the continued presence of the Koizumi’s inflammatory foreign minister Aso Taro.

Aside from his unheeded advice, Ming Wan presents some interesting statistical findings based on numerical measures of political, security, and economic ties. Among the findings in my notes after the jump:

He found statistically that: U.S–China cooperation has a strong positive correlation with U.S.–Japan ties but has no effect on the China–Japan relationship; “U.S.–Japan cooperation has a moderate negative correlation with China–Japan relations” and little impact on U.S.–China relations; and China–Japan cooperation does not have a significant effect on the two other bilaterals.

The essay is delightfully well-organized, so allow me to outline his points quickly

  1. On Sino-Japanese political and security interaction, based on statistical work based on numerical measures of relations.

    The China–Japan bilateral relationship fluctuated but displayed an overall downward trend. Meanwhile U.S.–Japan and U.S.–China ties were improving.

    “Sino-Japanese political interaction is immature.” By this, he means that whereas relationships such as the U.S.–Japan bilateral can display both conflict and cooperation at once, the China–Japan relationship tends toward extremes. This assertion differs from the conventional wisdom that China and Japan were experiencing “hot” economic ties and “cool” diplomatic relations since normalization.

    “The Sino-Japanese political relationship has evolved within tolerable boundaries. There has not been a high degree of conflict in this relationship.” Would he still say this is true after the April 2005 anti-Japan demonstrations in China? Here, he makes a key observation of how ties might further sour:

    The reason for this is that policy elites in both countries have managed the relationship skillfully. But that is changing. The trend here is that public opinions—mostly negative—in both countries now have greater impact on policymaking, and the management mechanism has been weakened. … Social participation will be healthy for the bilateral relationship in the long run but is creating short-term adjustment pains.

  2. The U.S. factor in Sino-Japanese political and security interaction.

    The United States has more or less stayed out of Sino-Japanese government contact.”My emperical research shows that the three bilateral relationships do not overlap extensively.”

    The United States does affect key strategic situations such as the Taiwan crisis in the mid-1990s.

    Because relations with the United States are so important for both China and Japan, Sino-Japanese relations take a back seat to hub-spoke relations with the United States. [This may change, I think, if China becomes an auxiliary hub in the region.]

    The U.S. factor helps avoid direct Sino-Japanese conflict, but mutual interests independent of the United States are also key.

    He found statistically that: U.S–China cooperation has a strong positive correlation with U.S.–Japan ties but has no effect on the China–Japan relationship; “U.S.–Japan cooperation has a moderate negative correlation with China–Japan relations” and little impact on U.S.–China relations; and China–Japan cooperation does not have a significant effect on the two other bilaterals.

  3. Sino–Japanese economic interaction: Economic ties between the two countries are strong and growing. “With both countries in the World Trade Organization (WTO), this trend will accellerate.”
  4. The U.S. factor in Sino-Japanese economic interaction.

    Again, the United States has stayed out for the most part. Its effect is mostly structural.”

    The U.S. bilateral economic policy toward China or Japan affects Sino-Japanese relations.” When the United States restricted some imports from Japan in the early 1990s, Japan exported more to China, and China sold more to the United States.

    U.S.-supported liberalism and strategic presence helps China and Japan trade somewhat, but the two countries would trade anyway.

    The United States was a “direct and dominant participant in the East Asian economy,” mostly because of its sheer size as a market.

    East Asia can increase regional integration despite U.S. influence.

    China–Japan trade bias has been stronger than the bilaterals between the U.S. and either of the two countries.

  5. He notes that “the United States [did] not have a clear strategy toward regional integration in Asia, which allow[ed] the exploratory East Asian groupings to evolve in recent years.” He says the it is a U.S. interest to avoid any East Asia-only groupings. In short, he closes, “The United States should help alleviate tensions in Sino-Japanese relations and participate actively in regional economic integration.”

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