Delivering Information from Japan at a Historical Turning Point

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2014.05.19] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | العربية | Русский |

A New International Order?

Jules Verne’s Around the World in Eighty Days was published in 1872. This coincided with the trip of the Iwakura Mission, a tour of the world by a group of government ministers who left Japan in December 1871 and returned in September 1873. The route that the Iwakura Mission took was just about the same that of the travelers in Verne’s tale—a fact that seems to be little noted. As of the early 1870s it had become possible to travel around the world without undertaking a perilous adventure thanks to major advances in technology and infrastructure, notably the completion of the Suez Canal, the start of trans-Pacific steamship service, and the creation of a global network of telegraph cables. And the course taken by both Verne’s fictional characters and the Iwakura Mission members was the logical one based on these advances. During the second half of the nineteenth century, Britain provided international public goods along this route, building up its globe-spanning empire, and the process of colonization proceeded apace, filling up the map of the world with sovereign states and their colonial territories.  

In our own era, the progress of globalization that has progressed since the late twentieth century, while taking various forms and generating backlashes, has radically transformed the world by enabling the transmission of massive amounts of data and the instantaneous movement of capital, thereby integrating economic activity around the globe. Emerging economies have ridden this wave of globalization, turning themselves into major economic powers. China is the prime example, having achieved development at a pace that could barely have been imagined as of 1990. Will the rise of China and other new powers reshape the international order and produce changes in international borders, as the developments of the late nineteenth century did? I believe we are now at a critical point in this new process of transformation.

China Seeks to Ride the New Wave of Change

Japan rode the earlier wave of global transformation starting the latter part of the nineteenth century. Even after its defeat in World War II, it managed to hold on to its lead within East Asia, thanks in part to the upheaval in China, its victorious neighbor. China’s Qing dynasty reached the peak of its power in the eighteenth century; after that the country experienced economic and demographic stagnation, and it was slow to adjust to the wave of global change that neighboring Japan was riding. Japan’s victories in the Sino-Japanese War of 1894–95 and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904–5 were emblematic of the shift of East Asian dominance from Qing China to the Japanese Empire. China finally won international recognition as one of the Allied Powers that emerged as victors from World War II, but as a result of the subsequent civil war within China and the Korean War, neither the Nationalists’ Republic of China (left ruling only Taiwan) nor the People’s Republic of China that the Communists set up on the mainland was able to enjoy the full fruits of China’s victorious status.

Will today’s China be able to keep riding the current wave of global transformation successfully? The Chinese themselves seem to be somewhat perplexed by their country’s “greatness” and clout as the world’s number-two economy, and also by the unpredictability of their domestic problems and external relationships. Meanwhile, there have been signs of a slowdown in the emerging economies since last year. Furthermore, China’s working-age population is projected to start shrinking, and so it seems certain that the breakneck growth of the past couple of decades will be replaced by steady expansion at a more moderate pace in the years to come. From a Chinese perspective, it probably seems essential to lock in any possible gains now, even while considering the prospect of overtaking the United States economically at some point in the future. We can see this sort of thinking reflected in the approach China is taking to its international relations: building cooperative strategic ties with the United States and Europe and at the same time recognizing and reinforcing its own clout within East Asia.

Japan’s Distinctive, Difficult Position

For Japan, China’s current posture is a matter of a serious concern. The Chinese are taking an even harder line than before toward the surrounding countries—not just with respect to territorial and security issues but also in the economic sphere. In the past, though the government in Beijing stressed economic affairs as part of its external policies, the focus was on cooperative economic relations, which helped assure moderation in its diplomatic posture. But now that China’s economy is the world’s second biggest, it has become a weapon, preventing countries with a high level of economic dependence on China from taking strong stances against it.

China’s power in East Asia, including its already great military might, is allowing it to seek changes of various sorts and challenge the status quo. The confrontations in the Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea are prime examples, as is Beijing’s sudden declaration of a broad air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea. At the same time, the Chinese are boosting their economic ties with surrounding countries and thereby solidifying their influence. From China’s perspective, Japan is one of these “surrounding countries,” along with countries like South Korea, Vietnam, and the Philippines. From Japan’s perspective, meanwhile, the latter three countries seem to be in a position like its own: at loggerheads with Beijing over territorial issues but needing to take into account their close economic ties with China.

In fact, though, Seoul has been moving closer to Beijing, partly because it has the issue of North Korea to deal with, and the Communist authorities in Hanoi are seeking to balance the desire for good ties with their ideological comrades in Beijing against the anti-Chinese sentiment of the Vietnamese public. Manila sometimes takes a strong stance toward China, but the Philippines’ lack of national power makes it hard to sustain such a posture. Japan is the only country in the region with the economic strength and overall national power to stand up to China. This makes Tokyo’s strategic policymaking all the more difficult.

Information from Japan as Food for Deep Thought

The international order and boundary lines that are currently in place in East Asia, including the north-south division of the Korean Peninsula and the division of China between the mainland and Taiwan, are beginning to lose their solidity. The direct challenge to them is coming from China, but the impetus for change is also related to global developments. Japan is the only country in the Group of Seven that neighbors China, and it is also one of the few countries on China’s periphery that have the power to stand up to it. Because of its distinctive position, Japan has a difficult time getting other countries to understand its policies toward China. Also, it tends to be targeted by negative campaigns in connection with territorial and historical issues.

At this sort of historical turning point, we have various options to choose from, and we may need to proceed by trial and error to a certain extent. It is important for people outside the government to speak up about issues, and we must work even harder at cross-border dialogue and exchange. What we must note in this connection is that the information that people outside Japan use as the basis for their discussions and consideration of Japan-related matters is lacking in volume and skewed in composition.

Now that the world is paying serious attention to East Asia, including Japan, our country obviously needs to transmit more information about itself. But we should not have the idea of delivering just “correct” information that will decisively make Japan’s case. I think that we need to transmit various aspects, presenting the diversity that exists within our country. This requires some care, however. When people hear extreme statements from Japanese, they are liable to take them as representing Japan as a whole. Within Japan we are able to judge almost intuitively when opinions expressed by our compatriots are sharply skewed. But people outside of Japan, lacking the context on which this judgment is based, are unable to tell which opinions are from the Japanese fringes. So it is not enough simply to present diverse information as it is. I believe we must offer information that can serve as food for deep thought of various types at this historical turning point.

(Originally written in Japanese on May 7, 2014.)

  • [2014.05.19]

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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