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Rising powers, rising rivals in East Asia?

By Rana Mitter


This week, the foreign ministers of Japan and China shook hands in public in Beijing, pledging better relations in the years to come.  It was a reminder to westerners that we still don’t know nearly enough about the relationship between the world’s second and third biggest economies (Japan and China having recently switched places, so that Beijing now holds the no. 2 spot, riding hard on the heels of the US).  Relations between China and Japan have been rocky over the past few decades, with an incident over the arrest of the captain of a Chinese fishing vessel by the Japanese authorities causing ructions just last autumn.  And of course for many Chinese, the relationship is shaped by memories of the horrific war with Japan between 1937 and 1945 in which some 15 million Chinese died.  But China and Japan are also profoundly linked economically and culturally.  Japanese companies invest in China; Chinese goods flow into Japan.  And the two countries share aspects of culture, particularly writing systems and religious practice, that come from centuries of shared interaction.  In the twentieth century, Japan was the dominant member of the duo.  But as the century to come seems to be China’s , what does that mean for its closest neighbour, sometime enemy, and now wary partner?

The key player in this diplomatic minuet is the US, still, of course, the world’s biggest economy and a cultural powerhouse.  It may be in relative decline, but it looms large in every region of the world, including the Pacific.  And of course, the continuing security arrangements between the US and Japan are one of the factors that exercise minds in Beijing.  The Chinese see the Pacific as the site of a new regional hegemony: not territorial, but in terms of influence, both military and economic.  Having the United States, with its powerful naval presence, in the Pacific, is a constant reminder that there is a check on their ambitions in the region and that not everyone in that region welcomes every aspect of China’s “peaceful rise.”  And Japan is still a key US ally.  After World War II, Japan was disarmed precisely so that it could never again invade and occupy Asia.  But as a result, Japan’s defence was taken care of by the United States, leaving Japan free to grow its economy (remember, until the 1990s, “Asian economic miracle” meant Japan, not China).    Ironically, the China of today might have preferred it if Japan had been left to develop its own forces without US assistance in the postwar era, since it would be easier for Beijing to face down an independent military in Tokyo than to do so a force backed by Washington.  The rivalry is not just about arms: both China and Japan compete for influence in the region and beyond with foreign aid and investment.  So the mistrust remains – but also the realization that the relationship will inevitably change as China becomes richer and Japan becomes older (Japan is one of the faster-ageing societies in the world – although so will China be from the 2020s on, because the children of the one-child policy are getting older).

Rana Mitter is Professor of the History and Politics of Modern China at the University of Oxford and the author of Modern China: A Very Short Introduction and A Bitter Revolution: China’s Struggle with the Modern World. The Sino-Japanese relationship is just one area that will be explored at a forum to be held on Wednesday evening in Oxford.  ‘Reporting China, East and West’ will be held at 4.45 pm in the Memorial Room, Queen’s College, and will feature Jeff Wasserstrom (editor of the Journal of Asian Studies and blogger), John Gittings (formerly of The Guardian), Duncan Hewitt (Newsweek correspondent in Shanghai), and Rana Mitter.  Entry is free and all are welcome.

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2 Responses to “Rising powers, rising rivals in East Asia?”
  1. Did you mean to write: Ironically, the China of today might have preferred if *Japan* had been left to develop its own forces without US assistance….?

  2. Rana Mitter says:

    Whoops, sorry yes. Thanks for spotting this typo (as did some others).

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