China and Japan Face Off9 min read

Melissa Chan reviews Asia’s Reckoning by Richard McGregor


In 1945, two conferences at Yalta and Potsdam determined the post-war world order and set the terms for the surrenders of Germany and Japan, with the latter meeting setting an ultimatum for Tokyo, to which Japan did not respond. Four days later, the United States dropped the atomic bomb on Hiroshima.

Much can happen in seventy years, but few survivors of World War II might have predicted that in 2017, democracies would look expectantly to Germany’s chancellor, Angela Merkel, as the best candidate for the leader of the free world. Nor would countries in Asia, ravaged by the Imperial Japanese Army, have imagined supporting Japan’s leadership as it moves forward on a regional trade deal, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which America abandoned.

History loves irony, and as President Donald Trump withdraws into his policy of America First, turning a century of American exceptionalism into a middling transactional nationalism, the two great powers of the Pacific – China and Japan – jostle once more, this time in vastly inverted roles. An ascendent and authoritarian China competes with Japan, which is now a defender of “basic values throughout the world, such as freedom, democracy, basic human rights, and the rule of law,” in the words of its prime minister Shinzo Abe during a visit to the US in 2015. He is currently seeking to revise the country’s post-war, pacifist constitution, and with his party’s recent election victory, Japan comes one step closer to that goal. Meanwhile, neighboring countries are more alarmed these days by China’s rise and aggressive behaviour in the region.

When journalists ask me for reading recommendations before taking up new posts in China, the first book I always suggest is Richard McGregor’s The Party. It’s an excellent primer on how things work there, both in the bureaucracy and how the Party plays a role in everyday lives. I will now add McGregor’s new book, Asia’s Reckoning, to my list for those headed to the Far East. McGregor presents the history of the foreign policies of China, Japan and the US as a digestible narrative. It is all too easy to view Asia through the prism of US-China relations, with Japan and other countries sidelined by the sheer economic trade between the two giant economies alone. In this book, McGregor firmly puts Japan back into the mix.

It certainly helped me parse Trump’s trip to Asia two weeks ago, in which he visited both Japan and China, as well as South Korea, Vietnam and the Philippines. Some wondered whether he might act like, well, a bull in a China shop. Even before his departure to Asia, Trump made waves after a story came out about how he had mused why a country of samurai warriors wouldn’t, or couldn’t, shoot down North Korean missiles. In Japan, he played golf with Abe and signed baseball caps which read, ‘Donald & Shinzo: Make Alliance Even Greater.’ Substantively, he pushed Japan to buy more military equipment from the United States, an effort every president before him has tried. The two talked about North Korea.

It is all too easy to view Asia through the prism of US-China relations, with Japan and other countries sidelined

In China, Trump appeared enamored by Xi. He shared a video of his granddaughter singing in Mandarin, a kowtow move unimaginable the other way around – would a Chinese leader ever call up his daughter to perform American folk tunes to please a delegation? Trump praised the $250 billion worth of deals signed between American and Chinese businesses, though most of them are non-binding, meaning they can disappear in a puff of smoke. One week on, pundits continue to debate whether Trump got played by the Chinese – some making the distinction between Trump’s artlessness of the deal and his policy team’s expertise.

McGregor quotes Kurt Campbell, the State Department’s East Asia head during the Obama administration, on China: “Rarely in history has a rising power made such prominent gains in the international system without any response from the established powers.” McGregor’s own thinking on the matter is that China, and Asia in general, has received the least attention despite its importance because it has been relatively peaceful in recent decades. One of the takeaways from his book, however, is a sense of inevitable war between China and Japan. It might not happen anytime soon, but World War II lingers in Asia in a way it does not in Europe, the issues having “never been settled, politically, diplomatically, or emotionally.”

One example of these rising tensions is the controversy over revised school textbooks in Japan, some of which softened the country’s invasion at the start of in World War II to an “advance” on China. Not only did Beijing feel this reflected a willful lack of accountability, it was outright revisionist history considering Japan’s war crimes, in particular its sexual slavery and slaughter of civilians in Nanjing in 1937. As McGregor explains, these issues didn’t become a perennial problem until the 1980s, when they were first manipulated for political purposes. Or consider Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates the country’s war dead. McGregor details US efforts to bring China and Japan to compromise, noting America’s equanimity on the matter considering that “the shrine, after all, honored convicted war criminals who had led the attack on Pearl Harbor and the subsequent conflict with America.”

While McGregor reminds us just how intense these feelings are for the two countries, he also reminds us – again and again – of the overwhelming, historic moments of rapprochement. Despite more than two millennia of relations, the first ever meeting between a Chinese and a Japanese leader did not take place until 1972, when Mao Zedong met Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Six years later, Deng Xiaoping became the first ever Chinese leader to visit Japan. And in 1992, Emperor Akihito became the first Japanese monarch to visit China. These series of firsts, compressed into just a few decades, sometimes took place as a result of mediation by the United States. But just as often, China or Japan sought closer relations as diplomatic plays against the United States, in an intricate trilateral power dance.

Japan warming to China and cooling to the US may seem strange now, but McGregor reviews the history, recounting how the normalization of relations between Washington and Beijing traumatized the Japanese, who were given very little notice before the decision. The US and Japan may be allies, but the two have not always treated each other with respect. McGregor reminds us, too, of their tense wrangling over the trade imbalance in the 1980s, a fight that made an impression on Trump at the time, who for all his inconsistencies has remained steadfast over the years on the problem of the US trade deficit (he raised the matter to both the Japanese and Chinese on his trip).

In later chapters, as the book moves through the aughts and into the present day, McGregor walks us through a dizzying period when a string of Japanese prime ministers came and went in quick succession, a situation that did not help relations with either China or the US. He also explains the confusing quarrels in the South and East China Seas, where Chinese vessels have attempted to establish new, de facto water boundaries. Hindsight is 20/20, but he examines Japan’s and the US’s missteps – both countries often respond too slowly on the high seas or diplomatically.

McGregor does not include the story of North and South Korea, sticking to the countries where he has personally been stationed as a correspondent. The Koreas are mentioned in the preface, but do not reappear until the 1990s some 140 pages later, when the US becomes increasingly concerned about North Korea’s nuclear program. Japanese prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s 2002 visit to Pyongyang is mentioned in one sentence. As a result, tensions on the Korean peninsula flit in and out in this book, like a presence you occasionally sense in the room but which never lingers long enough to pin down.

In a world where so many professionals fake passing experience as expertise, this is admirable. But considering how the two Koreas might impact trilateral ties – in a worst-case scenario drawing China, Japan and the US into war – McGregor’s decision to set them aside feels wrong. He devotes his narrative to the complicated relationship among the three countries, all of which could be upended in moments with a nuclear launch from a player who barely appears in the book. As a nation that has had to play vassal state to either Japan or China at various points in its history, Koreans’ angst and suspicion that their country is regarded as a secondary power would be confirmed if they picked up McGregor’s book.

Assuming nuclear deterrence will keep the US and North Korea from anything beyond a war of words, McGregor’s preoccupation in Asia’s Reckoning, despite many pages devoted to Japan’s domestic and foreign politics, is with China. Every Japanese or American action or inaction, every mistake or success, seems measured against the day the Asia-Pacific becomes Pax Sinica. China is on track to surpass the American economy in less than a decade, and McGregor brings home the historic significance: “It will be the first time since the early nineteenth century that the world’s largest economy will be non-English speaking, non-Western, and nondemocratic.”

The uneasy feeling that this development will lead to hostilities between China and Japan in some distant decade – or between China and the US in what Graham Allison calls the Thucydides Trap – is only tempered near the end, when McGregor notes China’s greatest vulnerability: its political system, where the buck stops with the Communist Party:

“Perhaps the most salient factor in China’s calculations was what might happen if it should lose to Japan. In Tokyo, a military loss would be disastrous, and the government would certainly fall. But that would be nothing compared with the hammer blow to China’s national psyche should Japan prevail. ‘That would be terminal for the CCP,’ the former [US naval intelligence officer] observed. ‘Regime change.’”

That might well be Japan’s, and the world’s, trump card against China. Two centuries of defeat and turmoil have made it risk averse. Xi is trying to change that, but even he might not find the boldness to wage battle, and instead opt for assured self-preservation. ∎


Richard McGregor, Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century (Viking, September 2017)