The World's Most Important Trilateral RelationshipMorton Abramowitz | Yale Global Online | January 2008
Economic integration is currently shaping US-Chinese-Japanese relations. According to Abramowitz, only domestic politics or virulent nationalism “could disrupt what promises to be a positive new decade for great-power relations in East Asia.”
The “rise of China” is one of the main foreign policy considerations of most, if not all, current political actors in the United States. In view of East Asian countries’ sustained levels of high growth, China finds itself increasingly in a position to wield soft power and influence. This pattern has been evidenced by China’s economic interest and engagement in Africa, and especially by its involvement in Sudan despite the genocide in Darfur. Investment choices informed by profit rather than human security are, however, not the only factor undermining China’s performance as a geo-political player. A deficit of transparency and representative legitimacy in Chinese institutions, as well as a poor domestic human rights record present permanent obstacles to any coherent exercise of global Chinese leadership. As a result, China’s role in world politics is likely to remain hindered by nearly ubiquitous international criticism of China’s moral ambiguity. In the meantime, the transitioning Chinese leadership will probably concentrate on staging an impressive show during this year’s Olympic Games in Beijing, and even more importantly, they will focus on ameliorating the massive disparities brought about by uneven growth throughout the country, aiming hence to discourage hostility toward the regime. Finally, military modernization in China will continue to capture the undivided attention of US policy-makers obsessed over not surrendering the hegemonic banner, and it will thus overshadow all other areas of progress concerning China, the development of China’s relationship with the world, and China’s role as an East Asian partner.
Thanks to controversial actions by former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, Japan’s problematic past vis-à-vis China and Korea now represents a real thorn in the side of the relationship between Japan and the aforementioned countries. Such animosity is likely to work to Japan’s detriment as the country seeks to become more active as a regional and global power, particularly with its quest to be allocated a permanent seat on the UN Security Council, an ambition China has vehemently opposed. Japan and China do continue to deepen their commercial ties, but both sides suffer from mutual wariness, exacerbated by at least one real dispute. Moreover, lukewarm confidence in the Japanese economy as well as pervasive suspicion of the “other” within both societies further complicates the relationship.
The high degree of comfort characteristic of Japanese-American relations during the Koizumi tenure is currently morphing, thanks to the crisis of Japan’s Democratic-Liberal Party. Be that as it may, although the United States hopes for a larger role in Southeast Asia to be accorded the economic giant, the tendency to think of Japan as an unconditional ally in all matters hurts the latter’s autonomy and international authority as perceived by its neighbors.
How to Strengthen the Trilateral Dimension
The cooperative framework in Sino-American and Japanese-American relations is in place. The pivotal economic importance of both Japan and China for the US and vice versa has opened avenues to establish productive dialogue separately with both partners. Emphasis should thus rest upon encouraging Sino-Japanese relations to really get off the ground and move beyond pleasantries into more substantial ground. To this end Abramowitz proposes the following:
- The United States and Japan should refrain from seeking an “alliance of values” with Australia and India, which would be largely perceived by China as aimed against it, sponsoring as a result unwelcome polarization.
- China should desist in its efforts to prevent Japan from sitting in the UN’s Security Council. An enlarged Security Council could mean a more stable world climate, and as one of the few viable candidates, Japan’s selection could also improve the mood in East Asia.
- The creation of an East Asian forum, though unpopular by all prospective members, could be key to drive East Asian cooperation into a productive and healthy realm. With the very real possibility that China will finally become a permanent member of the G8, informal dialogue between Japan and China could continue under the auspices of the organization.
- East Asian economic integration is essential to placate the negative forces that may render the region volatile. The prospects of such a project are disheartening due to the Sino-Japanese rivalry. However, these countries ought to work out their differences and look to the Franco-German example for suggestions about how to progress slowly toward better understanding. On this point, the United States should recognize that the benefits of East Asian integration would outweigh those of Asia-Pacific cooperation, and that although the latter should continue, the former should be made into a priority of the first order.
Moving beyond the bipolar competition of the Cold War and the unapologetic boldness of the brief unipolar moment, the beginning of this century articulates a multipolar dynamism. With China, Japan, India and Russia all lying on Asian territory, the time has come for the United States to use its privileged position to carve itself a place at the center of a constellation of powers moving in the same direction and with such intertwined interests that they can make instability a thing of the past.
The summary above was prepared by Christian Andreas Morris of the Atlantic Community editorial team from “The Globe’s Most Important Relationship” published in Yale Global Online by the Yale Center for the Study of Globalization on January 8, 2008.