Japan Plays Catch Up as US-China Relations Evolve in the Pacific


Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, the heir apparent to the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party, made his US diplomatic debut in February with a visit to Washington, DC. The warm welcome he received included a 19-gun salute (a first for a vice president) and nearly an hour and a half with Barack Obama—an unusually long meeting for a relatively junior visiting dignitary. When Hu Jintao visited the United States in a similar capacity in 2002, he was given only 30 minutes with then president George W. Bush. This in itself is enough to suggest that Xi’s visit was something exceptional. The red-carpet treatment underlined the dramatic nature of China’s rise over the past 10 years and showed how carefully the Americans are proceeding with respect to the man expected to lead China as a major power over the next decade. A new era is quietly dawning in which the actions of these two superpowers facing each other across the Pacific will determine the peace and prosperity of the whole region.

Analysing the Comments

The highlight of Xi’s four-day visit came on the day of his arrival, February 14. The day began with a meeting with his counterpart, Vice President Joseph Biden, followed by discussions with President Obama. Then came a lunch meeting hosted by Vice President Biden and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, followed by talks with Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta. Throughout these meetings, Xi repeatedly emphasized the importance of building a partnership based on “mutual respect and mutual interests.” The US leaders, for their part, called on China to live up to its status as a great power, grumbled about the undervalued Chinese yuan, and gave frank expression to their displeasure at China’s response to the situation in Syria.

The visit marks the beginning of a power game that will test the wits of the two countries’ leaders as they challenge each other’s strategic interests at the same time as they seek to build new partnerships. In this regard, Xi’s visit contained two important clues to the way things may pan out in the future.

First, we can focus on the following comment made by Xi during the lunch meeting with Biden and Clinton:

“There is no precedent for us to follow and no ready experience for us to refer to. We can only do what Mr. Deng Xiaoping said, ‘Cross the river by feeling the stones.’ Or what Secretary Clinton once quoted: ‘When confronted by mountains, one finds a way through. When blocked by a river, one finds a way to bridge to the other side.’ A Chinese pop song goes like this: ‘May I ask where the path is? It is where you take your first step.’”

China’s GDP today is roughly four times larger than it was when Hu Jintao visited the United States as vice president 10 years ago. Defense spending has also increased fourfold over the same period. China is now second only to the United States in both categories. In this new era for US-China relations, Xi’s allusion to Deng Xiaoping’s remarks served to emphasize the need for both countries to act with prudence as they grope their way toward co-existence and co-prosperity.

But there is no doubt that the US side wanted to use this visit to gauge Xi’s trustworthiness. Was this someone they would be able do business with based on frank discussions? In an interview with the Nikkei, former US ambassador to China Jon Huntsman described Xi as an astute politician who enjoys the trust of both the People’s Liberation Army and the Communist Party. Huntsman said there was a good chance that Xi would prove to be a leader capable of closing deals and getting things done.

Dividing the Pacific in Two?

The second pointer comes from a written interview with Xi that ran in the Washington Post just before he arrived in the United States. Of particular interest was a section of the interview titled “On the Asia-Pacific Region,” in which he had the following to say:

“The vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States. We welcome a constructive role by the United States in promoting peace, stability and prosperity in the region. We also hope that the United States will fully respect and accommodate the major interests and legitimate concerns of Asia-Pacific countries.”

The statement that the “vast Pacific Ocean has ample space for China and the United States” conveys a clear sense of China’s excessive eagerness to capitalize on its galloping development in order to engage with the United States on an equal footing as a great power. One implication seems to be that China regards a 50-50 partition of the Pacific with the United States as a natural consequence of its growing clout in the region. This is an ambition that goes far beyond the scope of the first and second “island chains” commonly used in analyses of China’s maritime expansion and off-shore defense operations in recent years. Xi’s comments to the Washington Post call to mind the “proposal” made roughly four years ago by a high-ranking Chinese naval officer to the commander of the United States Pacific Command, Timothy Keating, suggesting that China and the United States could divide the Pacific equally into two spheres of influence.

Vice President Xi’s comments may have been aimed at a domestic audience, particularly nationalists in the military, who have been gung-ho about expansion into the Pacific since around the time of the Beijing Olympics.

But there is another possibility. Xi’s comments may reflect an awareness that, in the medium- to long-term, China has room to take advantage of US strategy. This new strategy, which has been taking shape since last autumn under the pressure of significant defense budget cuts, seems likely to involve transforming Guam into a regional security hub and stationing marines in allied countries across the Asia-Pacific on a rotation basis. If this is indeed the case, it suggests that the US and Japanese governments may have sent China a confused signal, despite repeatedly emphasizing that the deterrent force of their alliance will remain intact.

Despite China’s continuing economic growth, the country has many serious issues to address, including environmental pollution and water shortages, explosive urban growth, widening social disparities, and ethnic minority unrest. How significant will these weaknesses be? And what about the United States—described by some as past its peak? Does America have the inner capacity to revive itself? The future shape of relations between China and the United States will depend greatly on the answers to these questions.

Japanese Diplomacy Still Behind the Curve

Vice President Xi’s recent US visit marks the start of a new power game between China and the United States–one that looks forward to the situation in 10 years’ time. Japan’s top diplomats, however, are well behind the curve of these developments. It is true that the prime minister travelled to China and India at the end of 2011, but there has been no follow-up on those visits since. Indeed, the prime minister thus far has not yet made a single overseas trip in 2012—tied up as he has been since the start of the year in his struggle to get his proposed consumption tax legislation approved during the current regular session of the Diet. Even his much-anticipated state visit this year to the United States, the first since the Democratic Party of Japan took power,(*1) has apparently been postponed until early May. Japanese politics thus finds itself alone and adrift as a new era dawns on maritime relations in the Pacific. (February 29, 2012)

(Originally written in Japanese.)

(*1) ^ Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, the head of the first DPJ government, did visit Washington DC in April, 2010, but only to attend the Nuclear Security Summit.

Guam Pacific Ocean Hatoyama Yukio Deng Xiaoping Barack Obama Suzuki Yoshikatsu Jiji Press Hu Jintao Xi Jinping Joseph Biden Hillary Clinton Chinese yuan security hub