China and Japan better to be friends than foes

China and Japan should seek strategic trust to capitalize on the mutual benefits offered by further cooperation

Last year was a difficult one for Sino-Japanese relations. The strategic framework in East Asia developed two increasingly distinct features – China’s peaceful rise and the United States’ “return to Asia” – that, to a large extent, led to a shift in the Democratic Party of Japan’s China policy.

By holding joint military exercises with the US, Prime Minister Naoto Kan’s government focused attention on the US-Japan alliance. Japan wants to assert a high-profile role in East Asia by virtue of the US presence.

The US plays a significant role in shaping China-Japan ties because of the existence of the US-Japan alliance. The nub of the problem between US and Japan is whether their alliance should continue, and if it does, how it should be maintained.

Japan’s strategic misgivings toward China not only play a negative role in stabilizing bilateral relations, but also prove that Japan does not believe in China’s commitment to peaceful development. Japan’s new “National Defense Program Outline”, adopted in December 2010, and its medium-term defense plan reveal its wariness of China.

However, Japan still has the edge over China in terms of maritime strength, not least high-tech naval vessels and aircraft carrier manufacturing capabilities. Unduly exaggerating China’s military power and playing up China as a potential threat only distorts China-Japan relations.

Whether China’s rise presents any military threat also depends on whether China has the will and the capability. Well, the answer is clear-cut – China has neither the will nor sufficient strength. Peace and development are China’s principles and strategic objectives. China’s efforts are concentrated on economic construction and social development.

Although China’s GDP is the world’s second largest, its huge economic size doesn’t mean competitiveness or military might. China still lags far behind the US in its economy, military and soft power. Compared to Japan’s 42-year run as the world’s second largest economy, China has yet to stand the test of endurance.

Undeniably, a major problem facing China’s diplomacy is how to balance its rising economic influence with strategic planning. China should maintain sufficient military strength so as to guarantee domestic economic development and external trade security. Since military “isolation” is prone to arouse suspicion and mistrust from the outside world, China should establish two-way military openness and strategic trust with neighboring countries.

So the crux of the matter is which kind of bilateral relationship do China and Japan want to forge, antagonistic or cooperative?

Bilateral mutual strategic trust is the basis for mutually beneficial relations. As close neighbors, neither China nor Japan can ignore each other and the development of both needs a stable surrounding environment. But the increasingly close economic ties have not yet brought deepened mutual trust.

Any issues or disputes that arise should be properly handled in a timely manner through mature diplomatic channels to prevent them being overwhelmed or distorted by public sentiments. Political leaders in particular should be discreet in both word and deed. Both countries should conduct swift dialogue and consultation in case of emergencies concerning the disputed Diaoyu Islands and maritime delimitation.

Meanwhile, the two sides should establish communication and crisis management mechanisms to respond to emergencies and ensure the normal operation of these mechanisms.

Japan should pay more attention to the opportunities that China can provide during its 12th Five-Year Plan period (2011-2015). So far, no country in history has sustained non-stop high-speed growth. China cannot enjoy its current economic momentum forever, so Japan should seize the opportunity of China’s market demand.

Compared to the effects of Japan’s rapid growth, China still has a lot to do. After getting rich, Japan’s economic growth slowed down and its population grew old. Most of Japan’s wealth is in the hands of its people, and its overseas net assets exceed 50 percent of its GDP. Though growing slowly, Japan’s environmentally friendly growth model is worth learning.

The environmental cost of China’s rapid GDP growth is enormous and fast growth is not everything. What Japan has lost is not capability, but direction and dynamic. Increased cooperation between China and Japan has great potential and could result in real benefits for both countries.

The author is director of the Institute of Japanese Studies with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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