Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present

Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun: Sino-Japanese Relations, Past and Present | By June Teufel Dreyer | Oxford University Press, N.Y., 2016., 454 pages., ISBN-13: 978-0195375664, ISBN-10: 0195375661

Understanding relations between these two major economies requires consideration of many centuries of history.

China and Japan at Loggerheads

China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies. It therefore matters greatly that the Communist Party of China (CCP) manufactures and mobilizes anti-Japan hatreds in China. The CCP’s aim is to turn what Chinese call the East Sea into a Chinese lake and the Japanese-administered Senkaku islands into sovereign Chinese territory. China’s chauvinistic and expansionist policies destabilize China-Japan relations and also impact the world market. They could even threaten to bring war. In response to such dangers, numerous top-rank analysts have been studying what China’s challenges to Japan’s peace and prosperity bode for the future of East Asia, including Taiwan. A book is in the works by the University of Maine’s Kristin Vekasi, for example, on how Japanese business responds to the CCP’s aggressive anti-Japan nationalism.

Among the scholarly studies of China-Japan relations, June Teufel Dreyer’s Middle Kingdom and Empire of the Rising Sun is unique. It is well-informed on security issues, even-handed politically, and situates future China-Japan possibilities in the context of the many-centuries-long history of China-Japan relations. Dreyer, a University of Miami political scientist, finds that historically the emperors of states in the territory of what is today China time and again sought to subordinate Japan in a China-centered hierarchy. And rulers in Japan for those many, many centuries struggled to maintain the independence and dignity of Japan and the Japanese people.

As a result of this history, Dreyer concludes, habits of mind have been formed in both states. These have persisted and deepened. Chinese ruling groups almost cannot help but seek hegemonic predominance, and Japan staunchly resists. A stable peace will therefore not be easy. Dreyer shrewdly analyzes this historically rooted difficult relationship.

Other scholars have looked at China’s challenge to Japan from different perspectives. In contrast to Dreyer’s historically informed, insightful study, Shiela Smith’s book, Intimate Rivals, deftly explores how day-to-day domestic politics in Japan inform Tokyo’s policies toward China, while Joseph Yu-shek Cheng’s dense study, China’s Japan Policy, details the impact of day-to-day politics within the CCP to locate the causes of China’s policy toward Japan. Jessica Chen Weiss’ book on Chinese policies toward Japan, Powerful Patriots, focuses on the international level. Weiss downplays both history and politics, treating Chinese ruling groups as a unitary actor that mobilizes patriotic passions in an attempt to get Japan to submit peacefully to China’s expansionist territorial agenda, imagined as a natural return to supposed ancient glories.

While I myself prefer an approach that focuses on how politics in Tokyo and Beijing interact, Dreyer is undoubtedly correct that state power-holders in both capitals conceive of future policy on the basis of clashing understandings of how Japan and China have interacted over the past many centuries. Dreyer notes, however, that the CCP’s propagandistic official story – which presents a peace-oriented, post-WWII Japan as militaristic – should not be confused with the reality of modern-day Japan.

Dreyer reminds us that ever since the rise of the Tang Dynasty, Japanese have resisted efforts by Sinicized people to subordinate and humiliate Japan in a relationship in which Japanese had to prostrate themselves before the Han Emperor, supposedly the only sun in the heavens. Dreyer finds that post-Mao China’s rapid expansion of wealth and power leads Sinic rulers, who wish to make their expansionist and hegemonic fantasy of ancient Chinese glory a reality, try yet again to make Japanese accept Han Chinese centrality and superiority at the sacrifice of Japanese independence and dignity.

Should Japan – as expected – resist Chinese domination, Dreyer concludes, peaceful relations between Japan and China could be threatened just as Ming Emperor Hongwu threatened Japan with “disaster” for trying to maintain independent equality. Chinese ambitions may result in military clashes.

Treating fiction as fact, the conmen of the CCP regime captivate the Chinese people with wild dreams and dangerous fantasies. Unless cool heads prevail, complacent Chinese may find themselves facing the painful trauma of a war-prone environment.

For Japan, obsequiousness to China would delegitimize a Japanese ruler. For China, embracing equality with Japan would delegitimize a Chinese ruling group that presents itself as superior and naturally predominant. Chinese rulers now, as in millennia past, are persuaded that only submission by neighboring states to a purportedly magnanimous and beneficent China can guarantee regional peace.

The Shunpanro hall where the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed in 1895, ending the Sino-Japanese War and ceding Taiwan to Japan. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The Shunpanro hall where the Treaty of Shimonoseki was signed in 1895, ending the Sino-Japanese War and ceding Taiwan to Japan. (Photo: Wikipedia)

At the same time, Dreyer shows that China’s economic policies toward Japan can turn on a dime when CCP politics change – whether for agreements on fisheries, trade and tourism, or investments. In 1970, China refused to buy Japanese steel until Japan met a number of tough Chinese conditions. The next day China ignored its own conditions and bought the steel. The supposed conditions were only a bargaining strategy.

Dealing with the politicized Chinese economy requires patience and a stiff backbone. Leaders of democratic Japan who gave in to the CCP’s humiliating conditions in the 1970s were castigated by other Japanese for engaging in ketou (kowtow) diplomacy reminiscent of the humiliations of imperial China’s millennia of attempts to subordinate imperial Japan.

In examining China’s tough negotiating positions, Dreyer looks at a broad range of economic issues in China-Japan relations – air routes, trade imbalances, de-industrialization, technology transfers, intellectual property, and of course offshore oil. But hate-filled Chinese rioters who attack Japanese businesses and property compel Japanese business to seek alternatives in India and Vietnam to continuing dependence on China’s politicized economy, Dreyer notes.

A review of history   

What the history of China-Japan relations shows is that ever since the Tang dynasty began to crumble in the ninth century, Japan stopped sending missions of subordination to China. The weak Song dynasty that followed the implosion of the Tang was pushed south and paid tribute to northern, non-Sinified states. The Song lacked the power even to imagine subordinating Japan, and Japan could come to view its civilization as superior to China’s.

The Southern Song was conquered by Mongol invaders whose Yuan dynasty, in what we now call China, twice tried to invade Japan. The Japanese defeated the Yuan dynasty aggressors. When the Mongol empire fell apart in a succession crisis, Han people established the Ming dynasty, but its expansionist efforts were beaten back. As the relatively weak Ming fell apart, Buddhist Manchus invaded China and established a Qing Khanate three times the size of the Ming.

But the Qing could not challenge an independent Japan that rapidly began to industrialize in the Meiji era. When the Qing collapsed and warlordism spread in the Republic of China, Japan emerged as the dynamic core of Asian wealth and power – one from which the economy of colonial Taiwan greatly benefited until Japan’s military expansion in the Asia-Pacific was defeated by an American-led military coalition.

Thus, for more than a thousand years after the decline of the Tang, the China that challenged Japan was weaker than Japan. The post-Mao rise of a great power China fueled by anti-Japanese nationalism is something new. It is a historical rupture. As Dreyer points out, the official CCP story – portraying China’s continuous domination of Japan and the rest of Asia over multi-millennia in a tributary system to which China is naturally returning – is actually a mythic narrative. It never happened.

The recent CCP quest for predominance in the Indo-Pacific is new and dangerous. I am therefore not persuaded that the history of Japan-China relations offers wise policy guidance for this quite new situation in which Chinese ruling groups have the ambition – and imagine themselves as having the wealth and power ­– to force Japan to surrender the East Sea to PLA control and allow the Senkaku Islands (known as Diaoyutai in Chinese) to become sovereign Chinese territory.

Given the post-WWII Japanese national identity arising out of the nuclear strikes on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, most Japanese abjure war. It is not a given that Japan will have the political will to stand up to North Korean threats to use nuclear armed missiles against it, let alone to join in collective security with Vietnam and India and others in the Indo-Pacific to balance and deter Chinese expansionist ambitions.

It is not ancient history that leads Japanese voters to oppose efforts at collective security in response to Chinese expansionism. A cruelly repressive but economically dynamic China could benefit from contemporary Japanese preoccupations with a particular notion of peace. That is the prospect that commands the anxious attention of business, governments, academics, and citizens throughout the Indo-Pacific.

The Japanese version of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed on April 17, 1895. (Photo: Wikipedia)
The Japanese version of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, signed on April 17, 1895. (Photo: Wikipedia)

And yet, as vividly described in a powerful chapter on how China-Japan relations have long affected Taiwan’s destiny, Dreyer persuasively shows how “China’s belligerent behavior caused alarm in Tokyo” by the mid-1990s, a full two decades ago. After China seized a Philippine islet and launched missile exercises just off Taiwan’s coasts, closing international waterways and terrorizing adjacent Japanese islands, “Tokyo approached Washington to explore an upgrading of the security relationship.” Tokyo, writes Dreyer, decided “to play a more active part in the defense of Taiwan.”

In addition, the major nations of Southeast Asia were also made anxious by the PRC’s easy resort to military force in the Indo-Pacific region. Like Japan, they approached the U.S. government. The Clinton administration responded by rebalancing toward the West Pacific. Military ties between America and Taiwan were greatly strengthened, and a tremendous American military build-up began in Guam. The CCP had betrayed President Carter, who believed “that the establishment of diplomatic relations with the PRC rests on the expectation that the future of Taiwan will be determined by peaceful means.” But since the mid-1990s, nations abutting maritime Asia have had to worry about the CCP’s willingness to use coercive means to achieve dominance in Pacific Asia.

Of course, Chinese hegemony is not inevitable. Rather, as Dreyer persuasively and vividly details, the Japanese do have a history of successfully resisting Chinese domination. So do the Vietnamese and Koreans. As with the Tang, which once seemed invincible and then weakened and crumbled, the post-Mao PRC also faces numerous, serious internal challenges –splits in the ruling party, popular discontent against growing inequality and corruption, an environmental crisis, financial and property bubbles, vested interests seeking financial gain from ever less competitive SOEs, and a monumental demographic switch causing the population to grow old before becoming rich. It is not inevitable that China will become a global hegemon. The relation of past follies to present perplexities is pregnant with possibilities.

China-Japan history, as Dreyer wisely argues, is worth taking seriously. But why not focus on how the domestic crises of the Tang weakened China and allowed Japan to preserve its dignity and independence for the next millennia and longer? Or look at eras of cooperation such as the period when Sun Yat-sen found Japanese to be allies against the Manchu conquerors of China and their Russian Tsarist allies, or when Mao took Japan as a partner against Soviet imperialism and banned negative presentations of Japan in China? The post-Mao depiction of a Japan that inevitably is China’s enemy is an invention, not the historical truth.

Conciliation and cooperation are not impossible. Outside of Beijing, Chinese local rulers do not want to lose Japanese investments and the jobs they create. Japanese businesses want to continue to build and sell in China. Yet, Dreyer reminds us, there is much history testifying to the difficulty of achieving win-win China-Japan relations, however much that outcome continues to be in the interest of both people.