China and Japan: we hated each other so much

(To Gino Lanzara)

Asia is preparing to experience moments of fibrillation. Two hegemons, Beijing and Tokyo, with perspectives and conclusions with iridescent colors.

While Western economies try a difficult soft landing, the influence of the Chinese events is clearly felt starting with an economy with a lackluster recovery that would need more selective investments. The suffering of the real estate segment was coupled with marked industrial weakness and record youth unemployment; a situation whose gravity is indicated by the decline in both durable goods consumption and private sector investment rates, and by the growing preference for depositing a greater share of savings in bank accounts; the virus is not the only cause of the economic covid, characterized by a low propensity to invest and poor reactivity to supportive macroeconomic policies, but the action of the State which has deprived the economy of dynamism must also be considered; protection from macroeconomic shocks decreased and the percentage of companies applying for loans remained low despite central bank efforts1, also in the light of the previous economic policy which regimented private initiative.

The fact that the Chinese parliament has changed its legislative procedures to facilitate the passage of emergency legislation does not lead to optimism, so much so that Chinese society suffers from fears absent since the days of Mao2. Imagine a splendid paradox: Chinese savers channeling liquidity to the Yankee market as the BIS crumbles, losing its bite and credibility.

On the other side of the East China Sea, the Bank of Japan intervenes on inflation and delays the abandonment of negative interest rate policies, confirming control of the yield curve and, above all, preserving more promising prospects than those in China. I wait from economic warfare Pekingese is substantiated in beggar thy neighbor, given that its economic policies worsen or in any case do not improve the problems of others by increasing the demand for exports and reducing dependence on imports3; China considers politics and economics essentially characteristics militari, and military actions such as political-economic.

Sino-Japanese exchanges have always been intense, so one is an important commercial partner for the other and vice versa, although economic interdependence has not facilitated relational harmony, also thanks (and not only) to the Confucian superstructure the past affects the present, also conditioned by pressures aimed at forcing Tokyo to surrender that does not go well with the national temperament.

Therefore it is not everything and only economics, even if it is trivial; territorial claims, rearmament in the Pacific, political-diplomatic tensions have led Tokyo to a strategic review characterized by a reconsideration of constitutional pacifism from passive to proactive, a pacifism based on the anachronistic art. 9 of the Constitution which does not take into account the rise of China, Taiwan and its upcoming elections under siege, of the North Korean threat blocking the USA on the 38th parallel, of the Russian assertiveness on the Kuril Islands.

As has already happened in the past, geopolitics is leading Japan to make substantial interventions in terms of international relations which cannot fail to reverberate on society. The element that upsets the continental balance is China; the expansionism of the Dragon on the Japanese islands Senkaku, has induced Tokyo to review the archipelagic security system and beyond: the peaceful growth (sic!) of a Chinese brand is difficult to reconcile with Japanese-American interests.

The concept of the Indo Pacific emerges in 2006, when Abe Shinzo, in a speech to the Indian Parliament speaks of the confluence of two seas, an image useful for understanding the reference to the need to ensure free navigation and circulation otherwise threatened by Chinese revanchism; in front of BRI therefore stands out theArch of Freedom and Prosperity which, in addition to Japan, brings together Australia, India, the USA, an alliance proposal which later became the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, to which the concept of FOIP must be linked4. The space of greatest Sino-Japanese economic competition is that of Southeast Asia, especially in the infrastructural field; while China supported the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Japan responded with the Partnership for Quality Infrastructure.

But it is sovereignty that plays a fundamental role in Japan, starting with the Treaty of San Francisco of 1951; despite the diffidence towards the military apparatus, the anomaly of a country without armed forces has led to rethinking the question, albeit from a self-defensive point of view and has contributed, with the disengagement from the various military commitments abroad, to the conviction that the Japanese government was the undisputed master of the sole checkbook diplomacy, a practice that has not prevented the hypothesis of substantial constitutional changes above all thanks to Abe.

Considering that during the Cold War pacifism was functional to the stability of the internal territory, or related to an international diplomatic role, with the collapse of the Berlin Wall a debate was ignited on the need for Japan to actively participate in peacekeeping also through the military tool. The important novelty, in a country that perceives itself as slow and reflective in capital decisions, consisted in the principle of safeguarding security, however and wherever it is threatened, net of philosophical utopias on the model of the pursuit of happiness à la Will Smith, which is contrasted with a concrete counterattack capability whose acquisition, having a suitable missile armament, does not require long and complicated constitutional reforms.

It is not the only novelty; the ongoing dynamics are leading to consider further interactions between US partners in the Indo Pacific and the Atlantic Alliance from a different perspective, a consequence of the 3rd principle of the dynamics of international relations in the light of Sino-Russian liaisons.

And now, another tap at the foundations of the celestial CCP, where unexpected events and mishaps undermine everyone's health. After the departure of the foreign minister, it was the turn of two very high military leaders; General Li Yuchao, commander of the missile force5 conventional and nuclear6 of the PLA and his deputy, General Liu Guangbin, according to the BBC disappeared7 for a long time e probably under custody of the secular arm of anti-corruption8, and taken over by former deputy chief of the navy, Wang Houbin9, and by Xu Xisheng, coming from the southern command of the Guangzhou Army, destined for the position of political commissar. Interesting detail: the anti-corruption investigation began after the resignation of Wei Fenghe as defense minister, which maliciously suggests a dark desire di strengthen political control over armed forces that swear allegiance to the party but not to the state.

The near-simultaneous replacements of starry and feluccas, a possible challenge for Xi, have seen the return of Wang Yi10, the highest foreign service diplomat; all after the humiliating jubilation of Hu Jintao which took place during the Congress which handed over to Xi and his loyalists the Party, i.e. the most authentic, transformative and adaptable imperial expression of the past and present Chinese political course: between the repression in Tibet and the one in Xinjiang does not change either the logic of government or the choice of the best partners, France and Germany11 above all, despite the French RF1, in 2020, having defined the new campaign of purge and rectification against corruption very close to one Stalinist purge, ideal repetition of the Grinding movement Yan'an, which in 1942 served to consolidate Mao's position.

The fight against corruption has often been a means of concealing internal conflicts; Xi himself was keen to point out that the leadership role over the armed forces belongs only to the party. Let it be clear, despite the removals, the imperial programs - perhaps - will not change, although we cannot fail to take into account the 14,5% drop in exports and the fact that it is not possible to tolerate further stagnation due to an economic syndrome that promises to be long and undervalued, with a volatile economy and high public debt; Tiananmen Square has taught us to fear social upheavals and their consequences.

From one shore to the other: Japan, a country long focused on its own domestic politics, and with aforeign policy12 determined by the atomic sun lit in Hiroshima and Nagasaki which took the country out of history where it is now returning; today Tokyo is regaining awareness of its strength in the Pacific as a function of geopolitical contingencies which, under American pressure, are pushing it towards new responsibilities determined by the need to preserve the freedom of the seaways threatened by Beijing.

But how much can Japan react in the face of an evident difficulty in influencing events in its geostrategic area? And then: if the US aims to use Tokyo as a forward point, how willing are they to forget its past imperial glories?

If geoeconomics is an easy discipline for Japan, which has to counter the Chinese strategic-welfare policy towards the poorest countries of the quadrant, the more difficult is the return not to a new militarization, but to a rearmament that has become necessary to guarantee merchant traffic by projecting power and exercising deterrence beyond purely defensive logics.

What is certain is that Japan has always known how to adapt to circumstances, even now that it is discovering vocations that go beyond the financial and economic sphere. It is no coincidence that Tokyo has released three strategic documents: the new National Security Strategy (NSS), which replaces the 2013 one issued under Abe, the National Defense Strategy (NDS) (known as National Defense Program Guidelines) and the Defense Buildup Program (DBP) (the former Medium-Term Defense Program), a real turnaround.

The Japanese strategy, despite the changes, is in fact in continuity with Abe's normalization process, with budgets of up to 2% of GDP which must find both constant financial coverage13 and the acquisition of equipment capable of ensuring a counter-attack capability, conceivable in any case within a self-defense scenario, excluding the feasibility of preventive attacks.

The inseparability between economy and security should be underlined, without forgetting the defense of supply chains and the intention of reaching a decoupling with China with which to face a changing balance of power and a strategic competition that takes into account the Ukrainian defaults14.

For some time now, the Japanese government has expressed concern about Chinese expansionism, a harbinger of dangerous unintentional reactions, triggering angry replies from Beijing which accuses Tokyo of political interference. Nevertheless, never before has the white paper qualified China as this time an unprecedented strategic challenge which increased expenditure on armaments and varied unilaterally the status quo in the China Sea with joint operations with Russia in the spaces in front of Japan, and in the Taiwan Strait.

The Chinese reply was not long in coming, although it seemed to betray some apprehension about regaining Japanese warfare capabilities in general and the aforementioned counterattack capabilities in particular; in summary, while cooperation with Russia, now critically reviewed by Xi in light of the Ukrainian events, is based on non-alliance, non-confrontation and does not target third parties, Japan is in any case attentive to peace while not setting red lines which instead, generously, Beijing traces to Taiwan by imparting ethical-political lessons with variable geometry and, moreover, aimed at a country that has retained part of an imperial idea sublimated, historically, in the Marina, the weapon closest to Japan's deepest soul, the one once again most suitable for interpreting the new strategic concept in competition with the rising Chinese naval force.

Too often distracted by the nascent high seas Navy of the PLA, we forget that the Rising Sun, on the sea, already has outstanding command and control operational capabilities, is a capable interpreter of the antisubmarine warfare, and is reconstituting air and naval forces which should remind us that in the Pacific the first custodians of lesson learned of the war with strike carrier groups it was the Japanese.

How much is it worth, then steel wall of soldiers invoked by President Xi? What is the level of reliability, if it is so urgent to strengthen disciplinary control over the military?

The presumptuous lectio magistralis given following the release of the new Japanese white paper by Tan Kefei, spokesman for the Chinese national defense ministry, sounds like a political act internal due: in principle the Dragon cannot accept anything that does not suit his line; however, the problem arises according to a notable variety of terms which cannot be neglected. raising one's voice is generally a risky exercise, both because it is necessary to have solid backgrounds, and because the recipients of the acute notes, and their more or less powerful associates, could misunderstand the messages launched, especially if based on removed and controversial historical pasts which feed never dormant rivalries and which above all awaken reminiscences of others much more recent than equally questionable acts of force. In summary, it seems that no one can claim the right to throw stones either before or after.

Given that the Chinese military build-up is based on economic expansion and on the ability to attract investments by opening up the market, the stiffening imposed by the Party, combined with the pandemic upheavals, does not help much, especially now that exports are in great pain and the country is slipping into deflation.

Another aspect that should be remembered concerns the Kronborg syndrome15, which inspired the removal of military and party leaders, a pathology which, induced by the pervasiveness of the Party in the state, has no equal on the shores of Tokyo.

Finally, the military instrument is the other cornerstone on which the controversy rests; the fact that China has been proceeding for some time with a massive rearmament in a non-transparent way, certainly cannot authorize an exclusivity such as to prevent Japan from doing so too which, among other things, master of the geopolitical foundations that would make it again protagonist, is already in possession of not only the means that make a Navy one Blue Navy, but also of know-how and personnel needed. Rationally, a belligerent conduct does not seem to pay for anyone, especially if directed against a nation, Japan, which does not tolerate exploitation of any kind, especially that of a sense of guilt aimed at extracting concessions of an economic nature.

Finally, Japanese rearmament, in addition to more strictly area considerations, necessarily leads to an expansion of the framework, evaluating not only a possible and renewed effectiveness of the pivot to Asia of the USA, which can count on a proactive ally, but also the military-political expansion towards India on the one hand, and towards Oceania on the other, an expansion which in geographical terms must make us pay the most profound attention to those who are entrusted with the geographical control of the obligatory passages, perhaps to political subjects who, in the scale of national priorities, place Chinese susceptibility in the lower right side of the ranking. In the light of the fact that the respective socio-political perceptions have certainly not improved, it may be useful to recall Barry Buzan's theory of the peaceful and legitimate rise of China, which in defining Beijing as a revisionist power dissatisfied with its international positioning, cannot help less than improving relations with Tokyo. Clearer than that.

1 Bank of America, the Economist Intelligence Unit and Goldman Sachs have lowered their forecasts for 2023 GDP growth, reducing them by at least 0,4 percentage points. 

2 Murong Xuecun pseudonym of the Chinese writer Hao Qun compared the Covid experience to a campaign of mass imprisonment. 

3 A currency war is an example of beggar thy neighbor.

5 The Missile Force is essential and has the responsibility to ensure the security of all strategic nuclear carriers in the country, as well as to deploy all nuclear warheads in specific locations according to Party instructions; it plays a central role both in connection with the invasion of Taiwan and in a conflict with the United States in the Western Pacific. According to SIPRI estimates, the size of China's nuclear arsenal has increased from 350 warheads in January 2022 to 410 in January 2023 – a number set to grow.

6 The Chinese nuclear doctrine has been characterized by a defensive nature, relying on the cornerstone of the no-first-use, without however excluding immediate and effective responses. After Mao's death (1976), the innovation started by Deng Xiaoping also involved the nuclear arsenal; the Central Military Commission gave its assent to the study, development, testing and deployment phases of two innovative devices with respect to the Maoist tradition: tactical nuclear weapons and the neutron bomb.

7 Second Cercius, a Canadian firm that monitors Chinese policy, the status of about a dozen PLA missile force officials is unclear.

8 Other rumors also spread that Li Yuchao was involved in investigations on suspected espionage involving his son who was studying in the United States.

9 He enjoys Xi's confidence in his ability to wage hybrid warfare.

10 Wang recently attempted to dissuade Japan and South Korea from maintaining relations with the US and NATO by appealing to the common physical and cultural traits shared by the three countries.

11 Annalena Baerbock, Foreign Minister: "for Germany, China remains a partner, competitor and systemic rival, but in recent years the aspect of systemic rivalry has increasingly emerged".

12 Domestic policy and foreign policy

13 To finance the increase in the budget, Prime Minister Kishida is proposing a progressive tax increase, counterbalanced by those who suggest the issue of government bonds.

14 Fumio Kishida: “What is happening in Ukraine could happen tomorrow in East Asia".

15 Hamlet's castle

Photo: JMSDF / Japan MoD / Xinhua / US Navy / China MoD