Sanjaya Baru | Has China replaced Japan as the new ‘Yellow Peril’?

The Asian Age.  | Sanjaya Baru

Opinion, Columnists

Fumio Kishida's leadership marks a shift from Shinzo Abe's assertive Japan amid rising tensions with China.

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. (Photo by JIJI_Press / AFP) / Japan OUT

The first fortnight of April was an eventful one for Japan. The Hollywood movie Oppenheimer was finally screened in Tokyo. In the same week Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida arrived in Washington DC on a state visit and renewed his country’s dependent relationship with the United States, the foundation of which was laid by World War II.

The movie opened old wounds raising afresh questions regarding the American decision to drop atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki even as the war in Asia had almost come to an end. Was the bombing and killing of thousands warranted by the events on the ground or had a defeated Japan become a laboratory in which to test these new weapons of mass destruction? Most war historians now agree that the United States did not need to drop the bomb to declare a victory that was already at hand.

For three quarters of a century after the war, Japan had not only eschewed nuclear weapons but had also decided not to re-arm itself and maintain regular defence forces. Opting to remain subdued as a defeated, occupied power, Japan focused all its energies on becoming an economic superpower. A geo-economic and not a geopolitical player on the world stage.

Then came the oil shocks of the 1970s and the 1985 decision by the United States to impose a devaluation of the dollar against the Japanese yen which was aimed at improving US trade competitiveness. Apart from using the exchange rate as a weapon against Japanese imports, the US used tariff and non-tariff barriers, including what was euphemistically termed as “voluntary export restraint” (VER) to reduce Japan’s trade surplus.

In response to this long list of humiliations heaped on Japan by the US, two eminent Japanese, Akio Morita and Shintaro Ishihara, wrote a bestseller titled The Japan That Can Say No. It was a polemical tract aimed at Washington DC and a message to the US that it could not take Japan for granted. Matters did not settle there.

Just in case the Japanese had not got the message, a distinguished American historian and strategic thinker, Harvard University’s Samuel Huntington, decided to write an essay (“Why International Primacy Matters”, 1993) in which he warned the American political leadership that a Japan blooming again had to be nipped in the bud.

Japanese strategy, behaviour and declarations, warned Huntington, “all posit the existence of an economic cold war between Japan and the United States. In the 1930s Chamberlain and Daladier did not take seriously what Hitler said in Mein Kampf. (Harry S.) Truman and his successors did take it seriously when Stalin and Khrushchev said: ‘We will bury you’. Americans would do well to take equally seriously both the Japanese declarations of their goal of achieving economic dominance and the strategy they are pursuing to achieve that goal.”

The Japanese challenge to American economic primacy, said Huntington, could threaten “American national security”, if the Japanese expand their lead in a variety of militarily important technologies. The US should avoid becoming dependent on Japanese technology, especially in semiconductors, video display equipment, circuits for missile guidance systems, and other key electronic products.

Moreover, said Huntington, “the growth of Japanese economic power threatens American economic well-being. The loss of markets means that American factories close and jobs migrate offshore. Profits go down, business go bankrupt, investors suffer… The economic decline and even collapse manifest in so many industries targeted by the Japanese will appear in still others. The Japanese government, for instance, has targeted aerospace for rapid development with government subsidies, loans, and political support. If Japan is successful, the future of Seattle can be seen in Detroit.”

I quote Huntington at length only to make the point that a bigger China now is viewed in the same way that a smaller “Japan” was in 1993. The “Yellow Peril” has become bigger. The rise of China has also sent Japan into a funk. In 2010 China overtook Japan to become the world’s second biggest economy. This economic demotion came over forty years after Japan’s political demotion by the US when in 1972 President Richard Nixon shook hands with Chairman Mao Zedong in Beijing. The US-China detente of 1971-72 contributed to China’s rise as an economic superpower, dwarfing Japan.

In the 1980s the US complained about Japanese subsidies to its exporters and today US treasury secretary Janet Yellen complains about China’s “over-capacity”. In 1980s the US asked Japan to exercise “voluntary export restraint”. Last week Ms Yellen asked China to scale back its industrial production, eliminate “over-capacity” and reduce the import pressure on US manufacturers.

The difference between Japan then and now, however, lies in the fact that in the late 1980s there were some in Japan who felt Japan could say “No”. Today, the rise of China has dwarfed that personality of Japan. It once again behaves as a subdued power, dependent on the West, rather than as an independent, Asian power. This is Fumio Kishida’s Japan. A far cry from Shinzo Abe’s.

As many of my co-authors and myself suggested in our tribute to the late Prime Minister Abe (The Importance of Shinzo Abe; HarperCollins, 2023), Abe did try to shape a new personality for Japan by seeking to tweak its constitution and make Japan politically, economically and militarily stronger. Within a year of his tragic death the Abe legacy has been diluted beyond recognition by his own disciple, Prime Minister Kishida.

We have seen a nervous Japan in 1971 and then again in the 1990s. During Abe’s decade in office Japan appeared more sure-footed and sought to regain its individual personality. His outreach to India in 2007, to Southeast Asia subsequently and even to Africa and Russia suggested that Abe wanted Japan to acquire a personality of its own. That process may now be delayed as Japan embraces the Anglosphere in Asia and quietly buries the Quad -- Abe’s historic contribution – and embraces AUKUS.

By aligning itself with the Western powers out of fear of an assertive China, Japan has become a lesser power under Fumio Kishida, compared to the high profile it seemed to acquire during Abe’s tenure. If rising Asian powers remain suspicious of each other, they will only help the West to retain its presence in Asia.