AN INTERVIEW SERIES
On November 10, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping met in Beijing for 30 minutes or so on the outskirts of the APEC regional economic summit, then underway in China’s capital city. The two leaders had not met since each had come to power almost two years before, during which time diplomatic, economic, and even rocky security ties had taken a serious turn for the worse.
Veteran government officials and security analysts, while pretty much united in saying that Asia’s two superpowers talking would certainly seem to beat the alternative, were also divided about China’s ultimate intentions, and just how far and how fast relations between Tokyo and Beijing might improve.
Last week we began a five-part interview series on these topics. First up was Corey Wallace, a specialist in Japanese foreign and security policy. Then came Bob Manning, an Asia specialist with the Atlantic Council in Washington, followed by Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. Today we hear from Bonnie Glaser, a respected China specialist who is also from CSIS.
Glaser: ‘The Chinese believe they have leverage’
Bonnie Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), specializing on Chinese foreign and security policy. She is also a senior associate with CSIS Pacific Forum and a consultant for the U.S. government on East Asia. Prior to joining CSIS, she served as a consultant for various U.S. government offices, including the Departments of Defense and State. Ms. Glaser has written extensively on Chinese threat perceptions and views of the strategic environment, as well as China’s foreign policy, and Sino-U.S. relations. She served as a member of the Defense Department’s Defense Policy Board China Panel in 1997. Ms. Glaser received her B.A. in political science from Boston University and her M.A. with concentrations in international economics and Chinese studies from the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
GLASER: I don’t think it resulted in a breakthrough in the Japan-China relationship. The relationship has been so strained that it probably was not realistic for anything very substantial to emerge.
However, it was a very good thing that they met. It would have been very negative had those two leaders not been able to come together in a meeting, shake hands, have a photo op, and at least have a 30-minute exchange of words. In the run-up to the meeting, they issued a four-point agreement on principles to guide the relationship, and even though there are lots of criticisms that can be made about that agreement, it does at the end of the day represent some progress.
The agreement, and then the meeting, raised the potential for putting a floor under the Japan-China relationship, halting what had been a serious downward trend. It remains to be seen if there will be much improvement in the political relationship. I certainly don’t think there is likely to be any progress in addressing the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.
But the two sides have agreed to resume the conversation between their respective militaries about putting in place hot lines that would be used in the event of an accident. Xi Jinping seems to have the same recognition that he has with the United States that an accident involving China and Japan would be a very bad thing.
It would be a very substantial step forward if China and Japan could negotiate some new agreements that would cover their respective air activities in the area.
It is certainly a bridge to far to think that they are going to set aside their conflicting claims to sovereignty over the disputed islands, and come up with some way of really resolving this issue, such as joint development. That, I think, is not in the cards in the near-term.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Xi Jinping seemed less-than enthusiastic when greeting Abe.
GLASER: China also remains very concerned that Prime Minister Abe will make another visit to Yasukuni Shrine. The domestic politics in Japan may actually influence Chinese policy if, as expected, Abe does well in the upcoming elections. Abe essentially winning another four years in power would really compel the Chinese to think carefully about how they proceed in the relationship with Tokyo.
Japanese investment in China is down considerably this year. That in part is due to rising labor costs in China and the overall slowdown in the Chinese economy. It is difficult to disaggregate the reasons for the slowdown. But there is little doubt that the downturn in the Sino-Japanese relationship is one of the reasons.
Japanese firms continue to invest in China, but not at the same pace as in the past. With a better atmosphere in the relationship, the economic ties might stabilize and improve.
DISPATCH JAPAN: How will China continue to press its claim to sovereignty of the disputed islands if the spirit of the four-point agreement is to reduce tension in the East China Sea? What leverage does China have, other than continued deployments of Chinese Coast Guard and law enforcement vessels around the islands?
GLASER: The Chinese believe they do have leverage. From their perspective, they have successfully contested Japan’s administration of the islands. The picture painted in the Chinese media is that now that Japan has signed on to the four-point agreement, and will talk about implementing confidence-building measures, it is now time for Japan to admit that they do not have sole administrative control of the islands. Indeed, as the Chinese see it, Japan in some ways is sharing that control with China, though not jointly of course. This is the way Chinese officials have described their perspective to me in every interaction I have had on the subject over the past two years. For example, from China’s perspective, when the two sides come together to discuss how to avoid ships going bump in the night, Tokyo is implicitly, if not explicitly, recognizing that China has successfully contested Japan’s administrative control.
I should quickly add that this is certainly not Japan’s view.
But the Chinese clearly see the four-point agreement as a win. In their logic, if Japan recognizes that there is a dispute over administrative control of the islands, then Japan also recognizes that there is a dispute over sovereignty.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What were the main factors that led Beijing to agree to the Abe-Xi meeting?
GLASER: I think the economic considerations I referred to earlier were an important factor. I suspect that the Chinese leadership recognized that Abe is likely to be in power for the foreseeable future, and therefore had to find some way to deal with him. And, as [former deputy secretary of state] Rich Armitage said recently, the Chinese may think that they have an “Abe problem,” but they really have a “Japan problem.” At some point, Beijing has to deal with the larger relationship with Japan, and stop putting all the blame on Abe for the downturn in relations.
I also suspect that China recognizes it cannot drive a wedge between the US and Japan. They may continue to try work at it periodically, but Chinese officials can see that the US-Japan alliance has shown itself to be very solid.
President Obama has spoken out himself about the American commitment, under Article Five of the mutual security treaty, to the defense of the Senkakus. It’s notable that the US has not made similar statements concerning the Philippines, another US ally in the region that has a territorial dispute with China. The situation involving the Philippines and China is different, and the US treaty with the Philippines is different. The key point is that the US has been very clear that the Senkakus fall under the terms of the mutual security treaty with Japan.
Overall, I think the Chinese recognize that they do have to try to work with Japan, while at the same time trying to lock in some of the gains that they think they have made.
DISPATCH JAPAN: As you said, Japan sees things quite differently.
GLASER: Sure. Japan, from Tokyo perspective, can declare victory in the wake of the four-point agreement and the Abe-Xi meeting. Remember, China had two preconditions that Japan would have to meet before Xi would meet with Abe: recognize a dispute exists over sovereignty of the islands, and a commitment from Abe to not make a return visit to Yasukuni Shrine. Japanese officials are emphatic that they did not accede to either demand.
But from China’s perspective, even if Abe did not commit to not revisit Yasukuni, it is clear that if Abe were to make a return visit in the wake of the progress represented by the Abe-Xi meeting, the bilateral relationship would go into a very deep freeze.
The Chinese believe that they do have this as a lever, and believe that they have really gained something important to them.
Recall that, while many countries criticized China for unilaterally establishing an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea that included the Senkakus/Diaoyus, Beijing has not had to repeal it, and is sometimes implementing it.
Xi Jinping is in a relatively strong position in China, and I believe he wants to lock in some gains, while also preventing the China-Japan relationship from deteriorating further.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does this represent a major shift on China’s part?
GLASER: China has not acknowledged having made any mistakes. Some people believe China is ‘recalibrating’ its approach to Japan and Southeast Asia, because Beijing’s actions have aggravated tensions with so many of its neighbors.
I do not share that view.
Xi Jinping has twice articulated the position that, while China is going to have good relations with its neighbors, and will help them grow by sharing in China’s economic growth, China will make no concessions on issues pertaining to sovereignty and territory.
I don’t see any of the recent steps China has taken toward Japan, Vietnam, or the Philippines as suggesting that China is pulling back, or recalibrating that position.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Some have argued that China is backtracking to some extent to what it sees as a successful case of ‘peace-through-strength’ in the US-Japan alliance, including the upgraded bilateral defense guidelines now being finalized.
GLASER: I don’t see it quite that way. China has certainly expressed some concerns. Chinese leaders have vocally objected to missile defense cooperation between the US and Japan. They are quite concerned about Japan’s decision to exercise the right to collective self-defense. They are concerned about the revision of the US-Japan defense guidelines.
But at the end of the day, Chinese leaders see this as driven more by Japanese domestic factors than by a reaction to Chinese behavior.
This is a phenomenon in the Sino-Japanese relations that I find occurs on both sides. Japanese tend to think that whatever China is doing is the result of Chinese domestic dynamics, and nothing to do with Japan’s foreign or defense policies. And Chinese tend to similarly explain Japan’s actions as being driven by domestic factors.
There has been an interesting debate in China, for example, as to whether Japan is moving again in a militaristic direction. It is an oft-heard narrative, much as the notion that the US is trying to somehow “contain” China. Both are things that everyone just repeats as a kind of conventional wisdom.
But [the semi-official newspaper] Global Times recently carried a couple of articles questioning the view that Japan is sliding toward militarism. One author argued that, while Japan may be doing some specific things that are against China’s interests, Japan’s actions to not amount to a turn toward 1930s militarism.
I am reassured that this view is at least allowed to appear in print. That is healthy.