By Invitation

The most important bilateral relationship in the world? China-Japan

How will Japan fare in a Sino-centric Asian century? It bears reminding that after World War II, Japan embarked on a policy of 'shedding Asia' and entering the West. It now needs to re-enter Asia and build an equitable relationship with China.

Tomorrow, Wednesday, Dec 7, marks the 75th anniversary of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor. April 28 next year will mark the 65th anniversary of the United States-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, signed in September 1951.

It took just a decade for Japan to move from being America's most hated enemy for launching the 1941 attack that President Franklin D. Roosevelt said grimly "will live in infamy" to becoming its major Pacific ally and pampered protege after the 1951 treaty was signed.

In the course of that decade, China, which had been the US' close ally throughout the Pacific War and fellow victorious power, was ostracised behind the "bamboo curtain", politically and economically.

Thus was the Asia-Pacific order of the second half of the 20th century, corresponding to the broader global order set after 1945 by Washington, established.

The Japanese modern historical narrative is exceptional. Whereas from the late 18th century, when almost all of Asia was colonised or otherwise subjugated by the West, Japan stood out as the only Asian country to "join" the West and become in turn an imperialist power in its own neighbourhood.


Japan's 20th-century wars with China had Asian regional cataclysmic effects; were war to break out between the two in the 21st century, it would have devastating global cataclysmic effects. With the US no longer willing to provide protection for Japan, the China-Japan relationship has become, to paraphrase Mike Mansfield, the most important bilateral relationship, bar none.

Having witnessed what happened to China when it sought to resist the apparently inexorable Eastern advance of Western power - the two devastatingly humiliating Opium Wars, 1839-1842 and 1856-1860 - the Japanese leadership under the Meiji Restoration (1868) decided that accommodation was the better part of valour.

In the spirit of Datsu-A Nyu-O, the term subsequently coined by the 19th-century Japanese thought leader (and founder of the prestigious private Keio university) Yukichi Fukuzawa, Japan proceeded to "shed Asia and enter Europe".

In the ensuing decades, Japan underwent a quite remarkable reform programme (only to be rivalled perhaps by the Chinese reform programme undertaken under Deng Xiaoping over a century later), thereby emerging as a full-fledged industrial and imperialist Asian global power.

In the course of the last century-and-a-half, whereas Japan has had a number of Asian colonies (Taiwan, Korea and Manchuria), it has never had any Asian allies. Japan has stood out as literally the "odd Asian man out".

On the other hand, it had a succession of Western allies. From 1902 to 1922, there was the Anglo-Japanese alliance, linking the great imperial power of the day, Great Britain, to the emerging Japanese empire.

In the course of the 1930s, relations with Britain (and the US) soured, leading Japan to become the ally of Nazi Germany in its wars against China and the US.

Since 1952, it has been the US' closest ally in the Asia-Pacific. It followed Washington's foreign policy lead to the letter. Thus, it refused to recognise the Beijing government of the People's Republic of China, instead recognising the Taipei government of the so-called Republic of China. Japan eventually switched, but only after President Richard Nixon's surprise visit to Beijing in 1972.

Though there were occasional tiffs, especially in respect to what the Japanese referred to as boeki masatsu (trade friction), Japan was able to prosper quite fantastically under the American "nuclear umbrella".

The distinguished former senator Mike Mansfield, a long-term American ambassador to Tokyo (1977-1988), famously announced and reiterated that the US-Japan relationship was "the most important bilateral relationship in the world, bar none". This was a time when the two heads of government, Mr Ronald Reagan and Mr Yasuhiro Nakasone, became the first to call each other by their first (in fact, nick) names in what was called the "Ron-Yasu relationship".

The 1980s, however, also corresponded to a decade during which the Japanese economy kept growing as if on anabolic steroids, in contrast with what appeared a sclerotic US economy. Many Japanese believed it was only a matter of reasonably short time before the Japanese economy would take over the US.

There emerged a syndrome among Japanese government, business and thought leaders called kenbei (contempt for America).

The most vivid illustration was a quite offensively arrogant book co-authored by then governor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara and co-founder of Sony Akio Morita entitled The Japan That Can Say "No" (1989).

In 1993, a senior Japanese official, Mr Kazuo Ogura, at the time head of the Economics Bureau of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, penned a lengthy essay essentially arguing that the US (and the West generally) was heading for a dead-end and that the hour for Japan, which was in any case a superior civilisation, had come.

In fact, in the course of the ensuing years, two major developments occurred. The Japanese economy tanked and entered its lost decades, from which it still has not emerged, while China's economy soared, overtaking Japan, then the US (in purchasing power parity, or PPP, terms).

China, not Japan, became the newly risen Asian global power. Having been based in Tokyo during the 1980s and visiting the country frequently in the 1990s, I can vouch for the fact that mainly due to atavistic perceptions, prejudice and contempt for China, the Japanese did not see this major Chinese transformation occurring. Tokyo was taken completely off guard and has remained in a state of strategic torpor.


In this century, on the one hand, Tokyo has had fraught relations with Beijing, essentially over territorial disputes in the East China Sea and over historical legacies, while it has desperately sought to return to Washington's protective embrace.

To that end, Tokyo enthusiastically adhered to the Washington-driven Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which excluded China, while at the same time, at Washington's bidding, it refused to become a founding member of the Chinese-sponsored Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), as a step to trying to contain China's rise.

Japan was one of only two countries to refuse the invitation to join (the other being the US). Membership of AIIB is universal, including a large number of both EU and non-EU European countries, a small number of African and Latin American countries, and a plethora of Asian countries, including Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Singapore and South Korea. At a meeting of the Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce in Xi'an in September, there were representatives from pretty much throughout the planet, with, however, Japan (the odd Asian man out) conspicuous by its absence.

So what will Japan do now in the light of United States President- elect Donald Trump's declared intention to pivot out of the Asia- Pacific, including abandoning the TPP?

Henceforth, Tokyo's greatest 21st-century challenges include, first, reversing the 19th-century policy, which is not shed, but "re-enter Asia", and second, establishing an equitable, constructive and cooperative relationship with Beijing. Japan's 20th-century wars with China had Asian regional cataclysmic effects. Were war to break out between the two in the 21st century, it would have devastating global cataclysmic effects.

With the US no longer willing to provide protection for Japan, the China-Japan relationship has become, to paraphrase Mr Mansfield, the most important bilateral relationship, bar none.

While much attention is being paid now to the US-China relationship and the cross-strait relations between Taiwan and China, and the one-China policy, I consider the China-Japan relationship to be the one most challenging to manage - a point I have made on previous occasions in this column. With a new President Trump soon to be sworn in, it has become all the more urgent, indeed burning, to reiterate the point.

• The writer is emeritus professor of international political economy at IMD business school, with campuses in Lausanne and Singapore; and visiting professor at Hong Kong University.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on December 06, 2016, with the headline 'The most important bilateral relationship in the world? China-Japan'. Print Edition | Subscribe