China Policy Institute: Analysis


Security and defence

The Rise of the Chinese National Security State Under Xi Jinping

Written by Tai Ming Cheung.

China has flourished since it opened its doors to the outside world and embarked on economic development from the late 1970s. But under the tenure of Xi Jinping, domestic and external security concerns have risen to the top of his administration’s thinking and in its policy priorities. This has led to the re-emergence of a national security state in which the leadership is more concerned with the protection of national borders, physical assets, the and core values, especially the rule of the Communist Party, and is also intensely nationalistic. Continue reading “The Rise of the Chinese National Security State Under Xi Jinping”

Cybersecurity and China’s Rise as a Global Power – a Challenge for Europe

Written by Johannes Kadura.

The rise of China and cybersecurity are two central issues that dominate the media and are being discussed by policymakers around the world. At the foreign policy level, the two issues have become increasingly intertwined. European and specifically German policymakers ought to pay close attention to these developments and familiarize themselves with the relevant facts, debates, and agendas. Brussels and Berlin otherwise run the risk of having to catch up and adapt to new realities without having a say or being prepared.

It is easy enough to understand why European policymakers have had a hard time properly addressing the ascent of China as a global power and the increasing ubiquity of cyberspace. For one thing, both developments have happened at staggering pace. Since the implementation of economic reforms and trade liberalization begun under Deng Xiaoping in the late 1970s, China has been one of the world’s most dynamic and fastest-growing economies. Just a few years ago, not many observers would have predicted the extent of China’s economic and political clout, which was bolstered by its weathering of the 2008 global financial crisis and, above all, the centralization of power under President Xi Jinping. At the same time, it is almost impossible to grasp the speed  and extent to which our lives have been transformed by the omnipresence and interconnectedness of computers and internet-enabled devices. From human interaction to industrial production and from commerce to control of critical infrastructures as well as to espionage and modern warfare, all have become unthinkable without a digital element. In the context of China’s rise as a major global power, technological advances, especially in the field of cybersecurity, will play a central role in political, economic and military terms. Unless made a strategic priority, European and German foreign policy will not be able to keep pace with these fast-moving developments.

Knowledge gap and Germany’s aversion to geopolitics

Two additional factors pose a challenge for Brussels and Berlin when it comes to formulating a coherent and effective foreign policy that addresses both cybersecurity and the rise of China. The first is the existence of a knowledge gap. As is the case throughout the world, senior European and German policymakers mostly belong to the generation of “digital immigrants” who grew up and began their professional careers without computers and the internet. Oftentimes, these leaders find technology confusing and troublesome. Cybersecurity in particular is an issue usually left to the geeks who in turn rarely show an interest in or understanding of foreign policy matters. As a result, the political debate runs the risk of either neglecting the profound impacts of technology on China’s relations with the West or, alternatively, becoming dominated by exaggerated fears of “cyber armageddon.”

The third problem is the EU’s and especially Germany’s failure to adequately address the rise of China and America’s response to this event in geopolitical terms. While it is debatable how effective the Obama administration’s “pivot to Asia” has been thus far, Washington can be credited with making China’s ascendance one of its declared priorities. The EU and Germany have failed to do so, in part due to their preoccupation with the effects of the euro crisis and the war in Ukraine. To be sure, the EU’s and especially Germany’s relationships with China are very different from Sino-American relations, which are marked by an awkward combination of increasing economic interdependence and an intensifying rivalry in the security arena. Unlike the US and China, the EU and Germany do not have their own agendas related to the regional security architecture of the Asia-Pacific. Rather, it is clearly in Brussels’ and Berlin’s interest to stress partnership and economic cooperation with both Beijing and Washington. However, to maintain a smooth relationship with their two most important (non-EU) trading partners in the long run and to help stabilize the Asia-Pacific region, the EU and especially Germany should not shy away from addressing security concerns of all involved countries. In this regard, cybersecurity, cyberespionage and fear of cyberwar are core issues of the geopolitical debate.

Washington’s cyber deterrence strategy

To understand the importance of cybersecurity in the context of China’s rise as a global power, it is indeed helpful to look at US-China relations and the two countries’ approaches to issues of cyberspace. In late September, during the Chinese president’s visit to Washington, Xi and Obama announced that they would work together to curb cyberattacks. However, the statement could hardly mask the increase in tensions between Washington and Beijing, not least due to confrontations in cyberspace. In early June, just a couple months prior to the summit, the Obama administration announced a hacker attack that apparently originated in China and compromised the security of data of at least four million government employees. That incident was actually only the latest case in a long history of accusations and counter-accusations. In May 2014, US-Chinese exchanges over cybersecurity reached a low point when a grand jury indicted five members of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA), charging them with industrial espionage against American firms. As Washington sees it, it is clear that Beijing is a major cyberadversary that engages in ongoing campaigns of cyberintrusions directed at the US government, the military and the private sector. The Pentagon’s new strategy for cyberwar, announced by Defense Secretary Ashton B. Carter in late April, is intended to deter such behavior by threatening to use cyberweapons in response to certain cyberattacks. Washington hopes that, with the help of Silicon Valley, it will be able to maintain America’s advantage in the cyber domain in both economic and military terms.

Cybersecurity as a strategic priority of the CCP

China routinely denies American allegations and portrays itself as a victim of cyberattacks. Beijing points to the information provided by former NSA-contractor Edward Snowden whose 2013 revelations showed that the US had its own sophisticated surveillance program targeting the Chinese. Under Xi Jinping cybersecurity has been made a strategic priority and several high-level Leading Groups and Leading Small Groups under the direct supervision of the president have been created. China’s cyberstrategy is best understood if seen against the backdrop of Beijing’s paramount objective of keeping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in power. In fact, while the US and Europe discuss cybersecurity mainly in terms of technical threats, China focuses first and foremost on information control and ideological threats as regards its domestic “netizens.”

On the economic side, Beijing is trying to maintain growth and promote its domestic IT sector with the objective of becoming a global leader in the digital markets. This approach is linked to Beijing’s broader strategy, dubbed “Made in China 2025.” Announced earlier this year, the initiative is inspired by Germany’s “Industry 4.0” approach and is aimed at comprehensively upgrading Chinese industry. Meanwhile, Chinese military planners are considering cyberspace as an essential field of espionage and military modernization, potentially giving Beijing a highly effective means in asymmetrical warfare. In short, Beijing’s cybersecurity strategy includes political, economic, and military aspects and is driven by the overall objective to strengthen China’s rise as a global power under the leadership of the CCP.

Toward a balance of power in the cyber domain

At a time of increased Sino-American competition and mutual mistrust in the cyber domain, the EU and especially Germany should step into the debate. Brussels and Berlin should stress the fact that all powers have a vested economic interest in an open, functioning internet. Rather than getting bogged down in protracted discussions about internet governance, the objective should be to create a carefully calibrated balance of power in which all stakeholders practice self-constraint and limit aggressions in cyberspace to a somewhat acceptable level, lest they face dire economic consequences. While the EU and Germany should emphasize the mutual benefits of economic interdependence and highlight that China has been a major beneficiary of globalization and technology-based interconnectedness, policymakers in Brussels and Berlin first need to realize that discussions about cyberspace cannot be held without addressing the implications for the security arena. Instead of turning a blind eye to geopolitics, Brussels and Berlin should see the debate about cybersecurity as a welcome opportunity to promote the peaceful rise of China.

 Johannes Kadura is a founding partner and Managing Director of the Think Asia Group, a consulting firm that specializes in political risks and risk management in the Asia-Pacific region. He is also an Associate Fellow at the German Council on Foreign Relations (DGAP) and an Adjunct Professor at Peking University. Image credit: CC by Friends of Europe/Flickr.

In spite of many challenges, Obama-Xi summit will see modest progress

Written by Bates Gill.

The enduring paradox of U.S.-China relations will be on full display this week in Washington in what will be one of the most important—and difficult—meetings between Presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping. Across so many dimensions of the relationship, the two countries have never been closer. Yet the underlying strategic foundation of the relationship—always fragile—has many new and troubling fissures.

On the one hand, the relationship continues a good-news story of deepening interdependence. For 2014, total bilateral goods trade reached $590 billion, making China the United States’ second-largest trading partner (just behind Canada), accounting for 15% of America’s total trade. China is America’s third-largest recipient of exports and is the largest exporter of goods to the United States—in 2014, nearly 17% of China’s exports went to American markets.

For the past several years, China has been the largest foreign holder of American treasury securities—contributing to lower borrowing rates in the United States and lessening appreciation of the Chinese renminbi against the U.S. dollar. As of July this year, China held $1.24 trillion in treasuries, or just over 20% of all foreign-held U.S. treasury securities, just ahead of Japan.

American majority-owned entities provided some 1.4 million jobs for Chinese workers in 2013. And Chinese-owned firms in the United States employed some 80,000 workers in America as of 2015, a more than eight-fold increase over 2007. In total, Chinese firms have invested about $46 billion in the United States since 2000, most of it in the past five years. Rhodium Group, a New York-based consultancy, predicts that figure could grow to between $100 and $200 billion by 2020.

The figures on people-to-people ties are even more remarkable. China is by far the single-largest source of foreign students attending educational institutions in America. In 2014 there were an estimated 274,000 Chinese students in America up from only 194,000 in 2012—a staggering 40% increase in just two years. Those 274,000 Chinese students make up 31% of the total number of foreign students in the States. Among these students in 2015 was a female Harvard undergraduate, Xi Mingze, who happens to be the only child of Xi Jinping. While America sends far fewer students annually to China—around 30,000—it is nevertheless the second-largest source of international students to China.

China will soon be the largest source of tourists traveling to America, with some 3 million such visitors predicted by 2019. Just over 2 million American tourists visited China in 2014, making them the third largest source of overseas visitors to China. This means skyrocketing air travel between the two countries. Between July and September this year, Chinese and U.S. airlines sent a total of 3,881 flights per week between the two countries according to CAPA Centre for Aviation, meaning every few minutes another flight is taking off in one direction or the other.

At an official level, the two sides have never been more deeply engaged, with some 90 regularized and ongoing bilateral dialogues on the full range of mutual concerns. And contrary to what one might think given the headlines, even U.S.-China military-to-military exchanges have steadily increased over time, and, as a result, the U.S. and Chinese militaries are today engaging at a level of seniority, frequency, and substance that is unprecedented, including high-level visits, recurrent exchanges, and joint multilateral and bilateral activities.

But, in the face of all these developments, a pervasive sense of distrust nevertheless underlies the strategic relationship between the two sides. Public moods in both countries are increasingly sour toward the other. Recent polling in the United States by the Pew Research Center shows that 54% of Americans have an unfavorable opinion toward China, marking a steady upward trend in that indicator over the past several years.

According to Pew polling this month, the list of principal American concerns about China include the large amount of American debt held by China, the loss of U.S. jobs to China, Chinese cyberattacks, Beijing’s poor human rights record, and China’s growing military power. Over 80% of Americans polled found these to be either “somewhat serious” or “very serious” problems.

Republicans in particular are tapping in to this angst—led by the party’s presidential contenders—and calling for tough measures in response. But no matter which party takes the White House next year, U.S. domestic politics will favor a harder line toward China. Even the U.S. business community, long-time staunch supporters of improved relations with China, has in recent years become less enamored, citing the increasing difficulties of doing business in China and a growing sense of being “unwelcome” there.

The public mood in China toward America is not much better. Since 2010, Chinese unfavorable views toward the United States have inched upward from 37% to as high as 53% in 2013 and 49% in the most recent Pew polling in 2015.

The comparatively newer challenges posed by cyberattacks and Chinese activities in the South China Sea add to a growing list of problems in the bilateral relationship. Overall, the Chinese side harbors deeply-held views that the United States is looking to “contain” China while undermining the legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party. Americans are concerned about how China intends to exercise its power in the Asia-Pacific and what that will mean for American presence, allied relationships, and leadership in the region.

And beyond the bilateral relationship itself, the strategic atmosphere for both countries is fraught with tensions and uncertainties. In Europe, in Russia, and across the greater Middle East region, Washington is faced with growing challenges. The Chinese leadership, in spite of their country’s growing economic and military heft, nonetheless seems driven by apprehension, ratcheting up the security clampdown at home and flexing muscles around China’s periphery.

In this increasingly contentious atmosphere the two presidents will try to foster progress in the relationship.

Neither side will get everything it wants. Xi Jinping has telegraphed his expectation that the U.S. would respect China’s “core interests” and “avoid strategic misjudgment”. President Obama is unlikely to issue any strong words of support in acknowledgement of those concepts.

The U.S. side has signaled its intention to press the Chinese to halt their commercial cyberespionage and also commit to more constructive policies to clarify and resolve differences in the South and East China Seas in accordance with international norms. But Xi Jinping, constrained by domestic pressures to stand firm, is not likely to come at all close to what the U.S. side is looking for.

But for the summit to succeed, both sides will need to come away with some wins. As a result, expect incremental but valuable progress in two or three key areas where mutual interests are well-established.

It is clear both sides are committed to progressing the U.S.-China Bilateral Investment Treaty. It will not be finalized at this summit, but expect strong statements of commitment by both sides to get the treaty done.

Second, the two sides will likely announce new bilateral agreements to combat climate change and make a strong joint commitment to cooperatively negotiate substantive, legally binding outcomes with the other parties at the forthcoming United Nations Climate Conference in Paris at the end of this year. These announcements will build from the ambitious agenda of state and city-level actions put forward at the U.S.-China Climate Leaders summit held in California last week.

A third tantalizing possibility for agreement could arise in relation to cybersecurity. While garnering little attention, the visit of Meng Jianzhu, a Politburo member who heads the Commission for Political and Legal Affairs of the Party’s Central Committee, to Washington earlier this month holds some promise. He spent four days leading a cybersecurity delegation, meeting with U.S. officials including Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and National Security Advisor Susan Rice.

Signals coming out of the White House, including from the President himself, underscore that cyber will be one of the “biggest topics” during the summit and suggest that Washington will urge Beijing to sign on to a basic “code of conduct” to restrain attacks against critical infrastructure during peacetime. Observers should definitely temper expectations at this stage, but finding and expanding any common ground on cybersecurity is a step in the right direction for U.S.-China relations.

So the paradoxical nature of U.S.-China relations—a complex mix of cooperation and contention—continues as it has for many decades, and the summit this week will be no different. That contentiousness has begun to weigh more heavily in the balance of late should compel statesmen on both sides to redouble efforts to expand their common ground, even if only incrementally. That will not only be good for the United States and China. It will benefit the world as well.

Dr. Bates Gill is Chief Executive Officer and Professor of Politics with the United States Studies Centre at the University of Sydney. A career-long follower of U.S.-China relations, he was formerly the Director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Senior Fellow in Foreign Policy Studies and inaugural director of the Center for Northeast Asian Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. Image credit: CC by U.S. Embassy The Hague/Flickr.

China’s military parade is an error of judgement

Written by Steve Tsang.

Whenever the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) departs from routine protocol, it is usually highly significant. Today’s military parade in Beijing, which marks 70 years since the defeat of Japan in the Second World War, is no exception.

It is only China’s fourth military parade since the Mao era; it is the first time it has held a parade that does not commemorate the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949; it is the first such parade where the world’s heads of state are invited.

It is a bold decision. It is also a major error of judgement. To openly show off its military might in this way will harm rather than aid China’s ambitions to rally support around Asia for its claim to undisputed regional leadership and its efforts to marginalise Japan and reduce American influence in the region.

China’s readiness to assert itself militarily is unnerving its neighbours. Such an overt display of military power clashes with the notion of China’s ‘peaceful rise’. It also signals the definitive departure from Deng Xiaoping’s strategy of downplaying its military capabilities – China is set to showcase its most advanced weaponry, something it has refrained from doing in previous parades.

Those outside China will understandably ask the question: what will this military strength be used for? After all, the boy in the playground with the biggest muscles should have no need to flaunt them. As one of the Chinese government’s own favourite sayings goes: “Listen to other’s words; watch their deeds.” The rest of the world is watching China’s deeds.

But the words the CCP is using are also crucial here. China is not marking an Allied victory and the end of the War in Asia. It is specifically celebrating “the 70th anniversary of China’s victory in the War of Resistance Against Japanese aggression”. In this way the CCP is affirming its historical narrative that China defeated the Japanese under the leadership of the Communist Party.

The Party’s legitimacy rests on popular acceptance of this storyline. In reality, China was one of several countries that fought Imperial Japan and the Nationalists, under Chiang Kai-Shek, did the bulk of the fighting in China. The 30 heads of states attending the parade are in effect validating CCP propaganda, another key reason why so many are staying away.

China is using the parade to send a clear message to the region and the world. It is claiming the right to maintain what it sees as the post-War order: Japan as the defeated aggressor and China as the leading – and responsible – military power in Asia.

This statement reflects China’s soaring confidence and growing assertiveness under its president Xi Jinping despite evidence that economic troubles lie ahead. Every Chinese leader has its own slogan. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao called for the creation of a ‘harmonious society’ and a ‘harmonious world’. Xi, who came to power in 2013, champions the ‘China dream’, a philosophy that centres on national rejuvenation under a strong military. That’s quite a semantic shift in two years.

Most of East Asia was attacked by Japan in the Second World War. The fact that many of the region’s states are refusing to send top-level political representatives to Beijing underlines their unease at China’s rise.

The scale of this unease is magnified when you consider the unpopularity of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe across Asia. China, though, is squandering the opportunity to amass regional support that this negative sentiment towards Abe presents.

The timing of the parade is problematic for China. Although it was planned months ago, it arrives at a time when economic concerns are growing. On one hand the parade will strengthen nationalist sentiment among many Chinese. But on the other, many will view it as an unnecessary distraction and a sign that Chinese government is not taking the people’s anxiety over the state of economy seriously enough.

The international guest list for the event is a revealing window into China’s relations with the rest of the world – and further evidence that the way in which the CCP has framed it has alienated most leading powers.

The majority of countries that are sending high-level representatives – in particular those that are sending troops to participate in the parade like Mexico, Pakistan, Venezuela and states from Eastern Europe – did not fight Japan in the Second World War. They are seizing the opportunity to show China their political support in return for a furthering of economic ties.

Of the major Western powers, the United States is sending its ambassador to China, Max Baucus – the lowest ranking official it could get away with without delivering a deeply embarrassing snub to China. Britain is sending Kenneth Clarke MP, who has retired from ministerial duties. And while China will make some noise domestically about the attendance of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, it must know that he carries little weight in current UK policy circles.

Even news of the decision by South Korea’s president Park Geun-hye fails to endorse China’s approach. A long-term victim of Japanese aggression in the past, South Korea has more reason than any other country to stand by China against Japan. Yet Park was notably hesitant in accepting the invitation, clearly uncomfortable at China’s posturing and wary of upsetting its long-time ally the United States.

The tone of the commemoration would have been different if China had opted to organise a ‘people’s parade’ to mark the end of the Second World War in Asia instead of a military one to celebrate its victory over Japan – and a greater number of foreign dignitaries may have been prepared to attend.

As it is, the high-profile absentees underline just how far the CCP and Xi Jinping have to travel to realise the ‘China Dream’, which surely depends on winning the trust of its neighbours.

Professor Steve Tsang is senior fellow at the China Policy Institute and head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies, University of Nottingham, UK. This article was originally published in the South China Morning Post on September 1, 2015. Image credit: CC by Philip McMaster/Flickr.

What message is the PRC trying to convey with its military parade?

Written by Michael Reilly.

Even before it has taken place, China’s 3 September military parade in central Beijing is generating considerable international media comment and speculation. Officially it marks the 70th anniversary of “victory in the war of Japanese aggression.” A not very subtle and barely disguised subordinate theme warns against the spectre of a renewed Japanese militarism through Prime Minister Abe’s plans to amend the constitution, and the now all too familiar message of Japan’s failure to atone fully for atrocities committed by its troops during the war. But many international observers and commentators see beyond this a clear and worrying message to China’s neighbours about its new found military muscle and its willingness, if necessary, to use it.

Others have pointed out the irony – to put it mildly – that the brunt of Chinese resistance to Japan was borne by the Kuomintang regime of Chiang Kai-shek but whose role has been all but airbrushed out of the commemoration, beyond the token and controversial presence at the proceedings of Lien Chan, Honorary Chairman of the KMT. That the CCP played a minimal role in the war is beyond much doubt. Historian Odd Arne Westad has argued that it probably killed more Chinese than Japanese during WW2.  According to one of China’s foremost scholars of International Relations, Yan Xuetong, the Cultural Revolution destroyed an age-old tradition of sincerity in China, replacing it by hypocrisy. Looking at the presentation of these events, many outsiders would agree.

 But all this arguably misses the main point of the celebrations and sees them from the wrong perspective. It is doubtful whether the CCP’s propagandists ever gave more than a moment’s thought to international reaction to the celebrations which have been conceived from the outset with a domestic audience uppermost in mind. Seen from this angle, the message of the occasion is familiar and well-established, indeed goes back to the very founding of the PRC in 1949. For outsiders, the over-riding images of the PRC in the pre-Deng era are overwhelmingly of chaos and disorder – the Cultural Revolution (famously, even Kim Il Sung thought this too extreme), the mass deaths during the ‘Great Leap Forward,’ border conflicts and more. But most Chinese see it very differently.

Since 1949, the consistent theme of the CCP has been its role in unifying China, bringing it peace and stability and standing up to outside interference and pressure – overcoming the ‘century of humiliation.’ This message finds striking resonance even with many of those who suffered during the Cultural Revolution: neither nationalism nor patriotism are uniquely Chinese virtues (or vices). The 3 September parade is of a piece with this well-established theme and the Chinese are far from being the only country to take no account of international reaction in their organisation of domestic events. Indeed, against this background it would be odd if the PRC were not marking the anniversary in a way designed to promote national pride.

Perhaps a more pertinent question for outsiders to consider is the likely domestic impact of and reaction to the occasion. Will it, as some fear, further fan the flames of nationalism? Is the CCP promoting it as a way of diverting attention from economic problems? Possibly. But propaganda is a bit like investment in infrastructure in that both suffer from the law of diminishing returns so need greater and greater inputs or efforts to achieve a consistent level of impact.  Seen this way, the issue is not the parade itself but what follows. Based on past experience, it is quite possible that with the anniversary out of the way, China will find it easier to re-engage meaningfully with Japan. Whether or not it does so will be a mark of Xi Jinping’s statesmanship.

Michael Reilly is a non-resident Senior Fellow at the CPI, a former Director of the British Trade and Cultural office in Taipei and until recently the chief representative in China of a major international aerospace company. Image credit: CC by Dan/Flickr.

Abe’s Subtle Apology: Can It Help Japan Become ‘Normal’?

Written by Niv Horesh.

Visitors to Japan can feel this is a country undergoing an identity crisis. After more than two decades of economic stagnation, falling birth rates and unstable governments, the Japanese have slowly become accustomed to the notion that the heady 1980s are long gone.

Back then, amid a real estate and stock exchange boom, there was widespread consternation in the West at the strength of Japanese industry and the cohesion of its society. Manga creativity and the Samurai codex were popularly celebrated far and wide along with the marvels of shinkansen (bullet trains). Lifelong employment, seniority pay and kaizen (continuous improvement) manufacturing slogans were widely cited as distinctly Japanese formulae for success; some economist analysts may have even persuaded the Japanese people that their country was indeed Namba Wan, the loanword for globally winning.

But China’s rise in the 1990s and 2000s, as the Japanese economy slumped into a prolonged recession, has forced the Japanese to reconsider the vitality of their post-war economic miracle. China today is by far a larger economy and holder of foreign currency reserves.  To be sure, most Chinese are infinitely poorer that the average Japanese. Japan’s highly urbanised landscape and wonderfully urbane social fabric still give off the feel of a mighty industrial powerhouse with little visible poverty and exemplary cleanliness extending even to the remotest of chikatetsu public toilets.

Yet, China is nowadays exercising the Japanese mind in ways that would have been unimaginable two decades ago, and as a result some observers have noted greater eagerness on the part of Japanese elites to look culturally closer through Western eyes. That means the obsession of the 1980s with Japanese exceptional identity is passé. To the contrary, Shinzo Abe’s government has set its sights on turning Japan into a ‘normal’ country, and one aspect of that effort is the argument that Japan’s conduct in the lead-up to the Asia-Pacific War was not much different to the West’s colonial outlook in the early 20th century. Another more concrete aspect of this is the move towards rescinding Article 9 of the Japanese constitution, which enshrines pacifism, and turning the Japanese Self-Defence Forces into a fully-fledged army with long-range deployment capabilities.

Abe’s apology for Japan’s wartime conduct delivered this month to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Asia-Pacific War should be seen in that context. It was at times semantically bold in its expression of regret, and in other places phrased in a somewhat passive voice when describing the causes of wartime suffering. Remarkably, in stark contrast to what has become post-war creed in Germany for example, Abe simultaneously gave vent to right-wing apology fatigue: “We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologise”.

As noted by eminent Japan specialist Tessa Morris-Suzuki, this was an apology carefully scripted for Western ears, and couched in a hidden grand narrative of historical revisionism, much more than it was a sincere outstretched arm to Japan’s neighbours. Nevertheless, considering that a few months before Abe’s speech it was still not entirely clear whether Abe would offer an apology at all, his speech is a step in the right direction for Japan.

Moreover, Abe’s second-term, foreign policy legacy may ultimately hinge on that apology. This is because Abe’s current moves to rescind Article 9 have touched off a popular furore and are stalled in the Diet. It is not just opposed by Japanese communists, but also by a large swathe of mainstream voters.

Similarly, Abe’s aim to resume nuclear power generation in the face of lingering safety concerns and the haunting memory of the Fukushima disaster is otherwise unnerving voters, as evidenced in popular protests surrounding the reopening of the Sendai Power Plant last week. Abe’s controversial visits to Yasukuni Shrine, where Class A war criminals are honoured, have far from exonerated the venue, and Emperor Akihito has religiously shunned it since acceding to the throne. Most alarmingly, Abe’s approval rates are falling because, despite the Governor of the Bank of Japan’s insistence on the viability of economic recovery, there is no clear sign yet that Abe’s famous ‘three-arrow’ approach has succeeded in pulling Japan out of its prolonged recession.

Apart from economic woes, underlying Japanese insecurity are festering maritime disputes as well as inconvenient longer historical memory not just of the two major Sino-Japanese wars that broke out in 1894 and 1931. After all, in pre-modern times, Japan had for the most part looked up to China culturally. In the context of Asian history, one might therefore contend that Japan as Namba Wan was a mere flash in the pan.

Since the property bubble burst in the late 1980s, the Japanese establishments have lurched between emphatic apologia, a brazen national-revival agenda and a passive-aggressive stance towards China and Korea over wartime remembrance. It is no accident that the first Japanese prime minister to officially apologise was Tomiichi Murayama of the Social Democratic Party (in office 1994-1996). His tenure was unusual in that almost invariably politicians from the right-wing Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), or former members of that Party, have governed the country.

Historically, the LDP is a transmutation of the same ‘developmental-state’ elites that acquiesced in Japan’s invasion of China in 1936. However hard it may try to seek emotional affinity with the West nowadays, this LDP near-monopoly on power makes Japan look more akin to its East Asian neighbours than it might like to believe. In fact, one might even argue there is more laudable substance to Taiwan and South Korea’s younger democracies in that in these two, power transitions from right to left have been more sweeping.

Japan has every right of achieving ‘normalcy’ through, amongst other means, embracing that affinity with its East Asian neighbours, Taiwan and South Korea. It is also prudent in hedging against the possibility of China turning aggressive over the next decade. But Japan’s LDP elites have to accept that their country will never be popularly recognised as ‘normal’ by Westerners so long as its leaders’ narrative of the Asia Pacific War is laced with apology fatigue, worst still revisionism. In that sense, Japan will always be compared to how the other defeated powers of that war have come to face their past: Germany and Italy. For these reasons, Abe ought to be congratulated. In his official capacity, he maintained his predecessors’ apology in place, thereby adding to Japanese credibility overall, even if his own personal preferences might be different.

Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute and Professor of the Modern History of China, the University of Nottingham. Image credit: CC by S Kaiser/Flickr.

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