FEATURED | China and Japan: Two Tigers on the Same Mountain by Amrita Jash

FEATURED | China and Japan: Two Tigers on the Same Mountain by Amrita Jash

By Amrita Jash

FEATURED | China and Japan: Two Tigers on the Same Mountain by Amrita Jash

A famous Chinese proverb states that “One mountain cannot contain two tigers” (Yī shān bù róng èr hǔ). Applying this logic to international politics, the proverb seems to gain some grounds if one takes into account the shifting power dynamics caused by a ‘rising China’ to that of a ‘stagnating Japan’ in the Asia-Pacific geopolitical landscape. 

What is noteworthy is that unlike the United States, Chinas ambition lies in gaining regional supremacy rather than global supremacy, where it aims to enhance its economic and military power to achieve regional hegemony in Asia-Pacific. With its activities, China is reshaping the strategic environment in the Asia-Pacific and thus compelling states in the region to re-calibrate their ties with China. Given this, it is widely accepted that United States is the key opponent to China’s regional aspirations, but what is important to note that for China, Japan acts as the significant ‘other’ in counter-balancing China’s economic, diplomatic and military prowess in the region. China’s core fears lies in that of a resurgent Japan drawn heavily from a historical consciousness. While defying the Chinese proverb, Michael Yahuda suggests that “China and Japan, as the two tigers of Northeast Asia, will have to learn how to share the same mountain.”

It is a known fact that China and Japan are two strong players competing at equals in the Asia-Pacific region. In this view, Japan and not United States acts as a strong counter force to strong China. What makes a ‘stagnating Japan’ a strong countervailing force to a ‘rising China’ can be explained in the following ways:
First, with three decades of rapid economic growth, China replaced Japan in 2010 as the second largest economy in the world after United States- elevating itself from Communist isolationism to that of becoming a global power. But what is interesting to note is that China’s growing economic clout does not completely overshadow Japan’s  long held economic prowess. For Japan’s temporary fiscal weakness as compared to China’s robust economic growth does not guarantee its demise as a strong economic player. Rather for Japan, the comparative advantage lies in its highly developed economy equipped with an advanced technology and a strong capacity of scientific and technological innovation- still making it strong in production than China.

Secondly, on the security aspect, both China and Japan possess significant military capabilities.  The only difference lies in their power projection. In contrast to China’s assertive military posture  and muscle flexing attitude, Japan holds a pacifist posture by maintaining its security alliance with United States- which has been the key lynchpin of the Asia-Pacific security network since World War II. In assessing the military index, the power parity between China and Japan is primarily reflected in their exercise of the sovereignty claims over the contested Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Wherein, Japan maintains the administrative control over the contested islands, China asserts its strategic supremacy by heightened maritime patrolling. The most significant counter to Japan’s terra nullius policy and later nationalisation of the Islands came with China’s unilateral establishment of the East China Sea Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ)- clarifies the existing parallel between the two countervailing forces in the region. Most significantly, Japan is now paving its way to becoming a ‘normal’ power as it recently passed the new security laws- abandoning the 70- year pacifism and legalising the exercise of the right to collective self-defense. Thus, Japan’s unfolding military posture raises concerns over re-militarization of Japan’s foreign policy- thereby, acting as a strong deterrent to China’s aggressive military power.

And thirdly, apart from economic and military prowess, China and Japan’s shared aspirations are also reflected in ideational terms. Wherein, the ‘self’ versus the ‘other’ equally provides a competitive impetus. For China, the core fear lies in that of a resurgent Japan drawn heavily from a historical consciousness, while for Japan, the onus lies in acting as a responsible actor against its erstwhile imperial image. In this case, the Yasukuni Shrine acts as a bone of contention- on one end, China holds resentments against the enshrined Class-A War Criminals, while on the other end, Japan has exhibited defiance to this Chinese imposition by executing high-level visits to the Shrine. For example, since the 1972 normalization, Japanese Prime Ministers from Junichiro Koizumi to present Shinzo Abe have constantly tested China’s patience by visiting the controversial Shrine. Besides, Japan has also repeatedly challenged China’s condemning attitude by revising history text books, comfort women issues and others. This attitude on either side further clarifies that neither wants to act submissive to the other in the power hierarchy.

From the above assessment, it stands clear that, for a ‘rising China’, Japan acts as a greater constraint and counter-balancing force than any other power in the region. There is an equal anxiety on either side to take maximum advantage of the changing global balance of power. Drawing parallels between their economic, military and strategic power equations, it can thus, be rightly said that China and Japan, with their shared visions and aspirations of gaining strategic regional supremacy in Asia-Pacific, are ‘Two Tigers sharing the same Mountain’.


About The Author:

Amrita Jash -K-5665-2015is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.  


Image Attribute: An anti-Japanese banner hung on a wall in Lijiang old town in Yunnan, China. This photo was taken in February 2013. Source: WikiMedia Commons [Link]


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