Striking the Right Balance in a Changing East Asia

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2012.09.06] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 |

I have had occasion lately to frequently visit the Kinmen islands—a small archipelago administered by the Republic of China (Taiwan), located quite close to Xiamen (Amoy), a city on the southeast coast of China. In 1949, the People’s Liberation Army of China launched an amphibious landing to capture the islands, but the attack was repelled by the ROC forces. This victory became symbolic for the ROC. Yet when Chiang Kai-shek moved the Kuomintang government to Taipei at the end of 1949, the United States had not yet decided to defend the Taiwan Straits. The US defensive strategy in the western Pacific drew a line from Okinawa to the Philippines that did not pass through these waters. This changed after the June 1950 outbreak of the Korean War, when the United States resolved to defend the straits. In East Asia, the Cold War was anything but cold, as heated conflicts broke out. The channel separating Taiwan from the mainland became a borderline between the West and the Communist Bloc. Another such borderline arose at the end of the Korean War, along the 38th parallel. Even today, those two areas mark dividing lines in the realm of East Asian security affairs.

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Japan’s Role in the “New” East Asia

East Asia has undergone a number of significant changes over the past 20 years, including the rise of China, regional economic development, and North Korea’s burgeoning nuclear program—to mention just a few examples. Other salient developments include the relative decline of Japan within the region and the nationalistic clashes over territorial issues. All of these developments suggest that the East Asian power structure, built up after the end of the Korean War, is entering a period of major change.

The Kinmen Islands I mentioned earlier are no longer a symbol of confrontation and instead are popular destinations for Chinese tourists. Former military installations have become tourist attractions and the islands are now a symbol of intercourse between the two peoples. The changes under way in East Asia are significant enough to dissolve that key dividing line.

How should Japan, which cannot expect its own national power to increase greatly, react to this period of change in the region of East Asia? I think that Japan needs to determine what scenarios regarding the 38th parallel and the Taiwan Straits would best serve its national interests, and undertake a wide variety of simulations to see how those scenarios could be brought about. The information gained could then be used to conduct more effective diplomacy. But all of this depends on precisely defining Japan’s national interests. I would suggest that, over the long term, Japan needs to maintain an environment conducive to smooth economic activity, promote its own economic growth, and enhance its image abroad, while at the same time preventing war and regional instability.

An Even-Handed Relationship with China

It goes without saying that the presence of the United States and China is of crucial importance to considerations regarding the future of Japan and East Asia. Mistakes made in dealing with China could seriously harm Japan’s interests. Economic development was the foundation of China’s foreign policy for a long time, but in the past five years sovereignty and national security have also become major themes. Indeed, there have been occasions recently where China has seemed quite willing to sacrifice economic development for the sake of national security. The country is already a major power that has tightly knit economic relationships with surrounding countries. This raises the question of how Japan should react if China takes an unyielding position on sovereignty or national security issues, using her economic power as a weapon? Fighting fire with fire over an extended period invites the possibility of war. On the other hand, a soft approach could lead to Japan being pushed out of the ring. Most likely, a combination of hard and soft stances will be needed. This will require Japan to strike a delicate balance, based on a firm grasp of where its national interests lie.

(Originally written in Japanese on August 7.)

  • [2012.09.06]

Editor in chief of, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

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