Student Blog | The China-Japan-Southeast Asia Relationship

In her assessment of China’s contemporary foreign policy Dr. Rumi Aoyama, a leading scholar in Chinese Foreign Policy from Waseda University, noted that China is creating meaningful “economic, institutional, and political ties around the world.”

Aoyama began this semester’s Sun & Star Japan and East Asia colloquiums with a lecture discussing China-Japan-Southeast Asia relations from both a historical and modern analytic perspective. Her lecture was divided into three parts: (1) Chinese foreign policy toward Southeast Asia, (2) the China-Japan relationship, and (3) the possibility of big power conflict.

China’s Foreign Policy in Southeast Asia

Because China is an economic and diplomatic giant its relationship with Southeast Asian states is asymmetric. These relationships are also relatively new. After opening its economy China was forced to start on the ground floor by building and restoring diplomatic relations with its regional neighbors. Full-scale diplomatic efforts and regional engagement did not truly begin until after demarcation, most notably in 1996, which coincided with Western engagement.

1996 – 2006

This early era of Chinese diplomacy proved to be comparatively successful in terms of regional cooperation. Numerous changes, including sharing maritime claims, industry and economic engagement such as the ASEAN-Chine Free Trade Area and bilateral free trade agreements with various ASEAN states, helped to strengthen regional cooperation. As a result of these early collaborative economic efforts China is now one of the top three trading partners for every ASEAN state. Additionally, it was during this time that China began to delve into a more multilateral framework for its foreign relations, not only in terms of participation, but also in regard to leadership. In these years China became engaged with the Six-Party Talks, ASEAN+3, South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC), and several other multilateral diplomatic efforts. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, in 1997 China adopted a new security concept of regional cooperation in non-traditional security areas. Up to this point Asian security hinged almost completely on bilateral treaties and relations with the United States. This new security standpoint, an attempt to create a more China-dependent region, entailed development programs with nations such as Cambodia, Thailand, and Myanmar as well as efforts in addressing transnational human and drug trafficking.

2006 and On

In the last decade Chinese aggression and the Pivot to Asia have changed the situation.

First, Chinese aggression is the direct product of China’s changed foreign policy goals. China redefined its national interests in 2006, moving its central focus from economic development to the concepts of sovereignty, security, and development. With security at the forefront of policy decisions China has become undeniably more assertive in the region, most notably in maritime issues such as the ongoing dispute in the South China Sea.

Secondly, the Obama Administration’s ‘Pivot to Asia’ is largely regarded as Washington’s counterbalance to Beijing’s increasing regional and international presence. China’s response to the Pivot is known as One Belt One Road (OBOR), which is a combination of the historic Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. In totality OBOR would span three continents: Asia, Africa, and Europe. It would include 60 countries and offer “five connectivities”: (1) policy consultation, (2) infrastructure connectivity, (3) free trade agreements, (4) currency cooperation, and (5) people-to-people connectivity. Ultimately OBOR has the potential to truly integrate China into the international arena in an unprecedented way.

Even if China makes no concessions on maritime issues it is now in a position to better economically integrate the region, in particular with regard to Southeast Asian states.

The China-Japan Relationship

The relationship between China and Japan is at the worst it has been since the normalization of relations in 1972. Perceptions of the relationship are dismal; over 50 percent of Chinese citizens and nearly 40 percent of Japanese citizens do not believe relations will get better. In both nations, overwhelming majorities of people have a negative image of the other nation.

In light of these statistics Aoyama stopped to analyze the question: What hampers Sino-Japanese relations? In both China and Japan the three most cited issues were: the Senkaku/Diaoyu Island dispute, the larger maritime resource issue, and the grand-standing history of dispute between the two nations.

Those who regard the other nation with positive sentiment, Aoyama said, feel that way because of bilateral economic relations and basic people to people interaction and connection.

Nevertheless, the state of the Sino-Japanese relationship presents a major security dilemma. The East China Sea dispute is not a passing issue. The historic precedent for conflict is not a memory that will be absolved at least in the foreseeable future, and the introduction of Japan’s 2015 Security Legislation undoubtedly complicated matters, though it was necessary for Japanese international contribution and national defense.

Big Power Competition

To wrap up her lecture and explain the greater implications of contemporary Chinese foreign policy Aoyama cited three points of contention that could lead to conflict with China in the near future.

  1. The U.S. Pivot to Asia and the Japanese Security Dilemma
  2. China’s One Belt One Road
  3. Russian Relations

While the first two have been discussed previously, the addition of the relationship with Russia as a matter of concern is extremely notable. Aoyama stated plainly that U.S. presence in Asia is causing realignment between China and Russia. Additionally, Russia has been improving relations with Southeast Asian nations, namely through the exportation of weapons to countries such as Indonesia and Vietnam.

As both a reaction to their perception of Western containment and their own security agenda, China’s foreign policy, while presenting the opportunity for greater regional and international integration, creates an unmistakable possibility for big power conflict.

Claire Huitt is a senior at Southern Methodist University triple majoring in public policy, economics, and political science with a focus on international relations and the Asian Pacific. She is a Bauer Scholar in Political Science, Hamilton Scholar, Engaged Learning Fellow, a representative of IGNITE Women in Politics, Chair on Asian Pacific Relations with the Tower Center Student Forum, Dedman School of Law Pre-Law Scholar, New Century Scholar, and a member of the University Honors Program. After graduation Claire intends to attend law school and pursue a career in international law and foreign affairs.