Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, The U.S., and the Struggle for Global Power
After enjoying a royal welcome in Beijing late last year – complete with a tour of the Forbidden City at sunset and a full military parade in Tiananmen Square – Donald Trump declared that he and Xi Jinping had “great chemistry.”
The Chinese president, for his part, was less magnanimous. Xi told his American counterpart that the Pacific was big enough for the both of them – a dismissive line that reflects his belief that he heads a rising power while Trump leads one in decline.
Flattery versus disdain. The remarks neatly encapsulated the seismic shift taking place in Asia.
The United States, the supreme power in the Pacific for some seven decades, is now run by an impulsive president who has shown little appreciation for America’s old alliances. China, meanwhile, is led by an increasingly authoritarian leader who sees his country as a global power with a glorious, millennia-long history that is returning to its rightful place in the world. Neighbouring North Korea is ruled by a ruthless dictator who’s made astonishing advances towards having a deliverable nuclear arsenal. And in the middle is Japan, an American ally and a Chinese rival, a nation that modernised while Chin disintegrated but is now in denial about the countries’ reversal of fortunes. Even amid a demographic crisis it has no idea how to fix, Japan still sees itself as an economic colossus and is unwilling to concede its decline.
In his excellent new book, Asia’s Reckoning, Australian journalist Richard McGregor writes that the competition between these two Asian powers, exacerbated by Trump’s unpredictability, should alarm the rest of us. “Any clash between China and Japan would not be a simple spat between neighbours,” writes McGregor. “A single shot fired in anger could trigger a global economic tsunami, engulfing political capitals, trade routes, manufacturing centers, and retail outlets on every continent.” That, of course, includes Australia, a country torn between its long-standing alliance with the United States and the commercial opportunities of a rising China.
McGregor is uniquely placed to draw together these themes. He spent two decades in Asia, reporting from Tokyo, Shanghai and Beijing, and was the Financial Times’ bureau chief in Washington, D.C. (he was the bureau chief in Beijing while I was the paper’s correspondent in Seoul, and we worked together in Washington). Drawing on his experience, McGregor has written a magisterial book that combines old-fashioned shoe-leather reporting – he conducts interviews with major players in Japan, China and the United States – and extensive archival research to chart seven decades of relations between the three countries. These relations, he shows, are more complex than suggested by the prevailing view of China versus the US–Japan alliance. He recounts the line by China’s first premier, Zhou Enlai, that China and Japan had enjoyed “two thousand years of friendship and fifty years of misfortune,” and recalls Henry Kissinger’s disdain for his Japanese counterparts, as well as Japan’s constant fear that the United States will desert it. “The Japanese have always been paranoid that the United States and China are natural partners – big, boisterous continental economies and military superpowers that wouldn’t hesitate to bypass Tokyo in a flash, if only they could find a way to do so,” he writes.
At the book’s centre is the growing rivalry between China and Japan – and the risk of a confrontation that an overstretched America will struggle to deal with. Even before Trump came to office and disrupted the old way of doing things, Xi and Japanese prime minister Shinzō Abe, both fierce nationalists, were locked in a battle for influence and supremacy. They took office only a month apart, at the end of 2012, just after Japan had nationalised a group of rocky islands known as the Senkaku in Japan and the Diaoyu in China. Xi was radically different from his notoriously dreary predecessor, Hu Jintao, and had an ambitious plan to make China great again. One of the first things Xi did was to whip up antipathy towards Japan, recalling late nineteenth-and early twentieth-century events such as the Nanjing massacre.
In 2015, ahead of the seventieth anniversary of the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression and the World Anti-Fascist War” commemoration, as the end of World War II is known in China, I went to a special exhibition at the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in Beijing. It featured a display of Japanese wartime artifacts, including flags, under a glass floor. Chinese visitors were literally walking over Japan. “We want to keep Japan under our feet,” Li Yake, a twenty-two-year-old college student doing a summer internship at the museum, told me.
At the same time as Xi began fuelling this anti-Japanese sentiment, Abe returned to power, hell-bent on achieving what he hadn’t managed to during his first tenure as prime minister six years before: revise the pacifist constitution imposed on Japan by the American post-war occupiers.
Abe wants to free Japan of the restrictions that stipulate it must not maintain any “war potential” and can defend itself only if under attack. He is making progress, with a vote expected on amending the constitution this year, and is simultaneously seeking relatively small increases in Japan’s defence budget. Of course, both moves are seen in Beijing as definitive proof of Japan’s “re-militarisation.”
In a visit to Tokyo in December, Steve Bannon, the arch-nationalist and erstwhile advisor to the American president, praised Abe for his efforts, calling him “Trump before Trump.” Despite such words – meant as a compliment – and the rapport between Trump and Abe, there is deep anxiety among Japan’s conservatives about the US commitment to the security alliance.
Abe was already worried about China’s ascendancy when Trump started using Japan as an example of what was wrong with the United States’ foreign policy. Why was the United States defending a rich country that was cutting the US’s lunch when it came to trade? Trump’s victory alarmed the Abe government, which had been sure of a Clinton win and had few contacts within the Trump camp. Senior officials told me that this was, in part, because they didn’t want to risk Trump going out on the campaign trail claiming that the Japanese were begging to talk to him.
However, the Japanese prime minister has since skilfully handled Trump. Days after the 2016 election, Abe personally delivered a gold-plated golf driver to the president-elect in Trump Tower. On Trump’s recent trip to Tokyo, Abe pandered to his counterpart’s tastes, serving him hamburgers and steak, and taking him out on the golf course. Not a sliver of raw fish in sight.
Still, despite the public jollity, Japan’s defence hawks are clearly worried. Now that North Korea has a demonstrated ability to send missiles to the mainland United States, will Washington – which is in the firing line – bother to defend its junior partner? Shigeru Ishiba, a hardline but nevertheless influential voice in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has stated that Japan should have the freedom to build nuclear weapons. Trump himself has several times said the same. Given Beijing wants nothing more than for the United States to leave the region, Trump’s talk of closing American military bases in Japan and South Korea must have been music to Chinese ears.
But Xi has not capitalised on Trump’s isolationist rhetoric to try to seduce Japan. Instead, he has stoked hostility towards its neighbour. McGregor’s research underlines how much the foreign policy of both countries is driven by domestic considerations.
With Xi, Abe and Trump all set to enjoy several more years in power – not to mention Kim Jong-un in North Korea – these relationships will only become more toxic. That makes Asia’s Reckoning crucial reading for our times.