Editor's Note

China’s challenge to the current international system has generated concerns for the US leadership, causing a shift in US policy toward China driven by the view that China’s actions indicated that the US engagement policy had failed. Changes in American approaches to China have become more obvious since President Trump took office. He has taken a tough stance on China and triggered a trade war between the two countries. Ryo Sahashi attempts to show those changes in US policies toward China by examining key events with relation to various issues as well as Japanese responses to the ongoing competition between the US and China.



Quotes from the paper 


The U.S. Vice President Mike Pence delivered his eye-catching speech on October 4th, 2018 on China. In the remark, Pence clearly accuses China of using political, military, and economic tools to interfere in the domestic politics and advance its influence in American society. He also criticizes Beijing for suppressing the rights of religious freedom for Christians, Muslims and Buddhists. Giving credit to American “open door” policy for the success of rapid development of China, Pence discusses the essence of Trump administration’s National Security Strategy and emerging policies against a “communist” China. While there is still a chance for both governments to agree on ways to assuage imbalance of trade surplus through diplomatic efforts, the hard-liner position on China has been almost a unified and inter-departmental view in the Trump administration.

Trump’s foreign policy has inclination to promoting ‘America First’ in trade, and has been reluctant to globalism, order-building and international institutions, and cold-hearted towards old allies and partners which American leadership has been underpinned since the Cold War. Therefore, it was surprising to the international audience that his administration has advocated the strategy of competition against China, which requires all of policy resources, what he has denied until then.

The big question is the role of the U.S. allies and partners in the strategy. Since Chinese challenges on the liberal and democratic order are multifaceted, and use of force is not always cost-effective to achieve the political goals in great power politics, it is rational to accumulate political and diplomatic powers to check and shape ambitious activities by China, such as modernizing dual-use technologies, exercising sharp power in Western democracies, and envisioning an alternative order. However, the Trump administration has gradually decreased American reliability and even credibility due to its uncertain and untrustworthy commitments on international agreements. This casts doubts for some on the ability for the U.S. to lead a coalition to compete against China.

Moreover, no country is prepared to contain China: their China policy is naturally nuanced and balanced, due to the reality of economic interdependence and indispensability of economic exchange with China. In each country, we can find out interest groups, or constituency, to support business with China, while we can also find out pro-competition camps who try to offset engagement. A good example is the recent Japan-China relations. In October 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing and shook hands strongly with President Xi, proclaiming three principles in order to avoid being dragged into the competition. Japan has viewed that its alliance policy with the U.S. is still essential for long-term security, but it aims to shape the strategic environment by international norms and rules. Japan is not alone for such a nuanced and independent stance on China, and many Asian and European countries have different policies against China. Their strategic goals are to shape China in the rule-based order.

Some argue it is because of the Trump administration that the U.S. finally turned its foreign and security policy toward competitive approaches against China. However, we have to ask whether the Trump administration has an ability to lead the world for the strategic goals properly, and whether American allies and friends can accept the economic cost to reshuffle business activities with China due to security concerns.

This paper attempts to contrast American and Japanese approaches on China. Firstly, it analyzes emerging American hard-liner approaches on China. Then, it argues the debates and responses in Japan on the emerging U.S. -China competition.


Trade War

Technology is becoming the main field of competitive policies. In December [2018], CFO of Huawei Wanzhou Meng was arrested in Canada and the U.S. Justice Department claimed criminal charges for bank fraud, wire fraud, conspiracies to commit bank among others against Huawei, its two affiliates and Ms. Meng. In 5G and ITC area, reportedly the Trump administration would soon issue presidential decisions on tighter control of telecommunication device made by Chinese companies to American market. Also, in other areas of emerging and founding technologies, the U.S. Commerce department is in the process of issuing the list of control.



To reduce increasing Chinese influence and debt diplomacy and make government development organizations like Overseas Private Investment Corp (OPIC) stronger, the Senate passed the legislation to create a new 60 billion USD agency. In addition, in Papua New Guina Vice President Pence also announced the Indo-Pacific Transparency Initiative. His speech explained, “In conjunction with more than $400 million in American funding, this program will help empower the region’s citizens, combat corruption, and strengthen sovereignty” (Pence 2018a).


Sharp Power

Congressional Commission Report revealed that some Washington think-tanks were funded by the Chinese Communist Party through the United Front Work Department (UFWD) to ensure a better projection of China in the U.S. The report stated violation against the rights and freedom of speech that were protected by the laws of the U.S. The report stated that Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies had been receiving funding from Tung Chee-hwa, the Vice Chairman of the Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference that has high influence on UFWD.

The U.S. Justice Department ordered on September 18th [2018] that Xinhua News Agency (CCTV) and China Global Television Network (CGTN) to register as foreign agents. The initiative was taken to reduce the foreign influence in the domestic issues of the U.S., to reduce the media manipulation, and to toughen the stance of the U.S. on the policies of China. On the same day, Trump tweeted that China was trying to meddle in the U.S. elections by turning the farmers, industrialists and businessmen against the Trump administration.


Religious Freedom

On September 12th [2018], Nauert discussed a possibility of U.S. sanctions in response to the Chinese government's crackdown on ethnic Uighurs, Kazakhs and other minority groups. The sanctions could be imposed under the Global Magnitsky Act that would allow the government of the U.S. to freeze the U.S. assets of the Human rights violators, ban them from entering the U.S. and prohibit any U.S. firms to do business with them. Chinese government did not show any accommodating posture and insisted the “sinicization” of Xinjiang should continue.



In December 2016, Trump received a call from the President of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen. Since taking office, Washington and Beijing started to fix the relationship through diplomatic back channels. On February 9th, just a few days before the upcoming Abe-Trump summit, the White House released the turnout on One China policy. It said, “President Trump agreed, at the request of President Xi, to honor our ‘one China’ policy.”

Trump administration has tried to stretch out its Taiwan-related policy to the edge of its One China policy, and the Congress has shown its strong interests through legislation, while most of the policies on Taiwan was under the administrative power. A good example of bipartisan support and President’s forward-leaning position can be seen in the Taiwan Travel Act (signed in March 2018), which permits the meetings between the U.S. and Taiwanese high officials.


Further Research Agenda

[I]t is observed that Trump administration’s China policy has been transformed into the hard-liner approach since the winter of 2017 through spring of 2018, and security hawks and economic nationalists have united their positions on various issues. However, the research questions have been remained: firstly, whether the administration position on China has been really shifted, including president, bureaucracy, and interest groups.

Secondly, it is still unclear whether there is a consensus view on the end state with such hard-liner policy. Some provocatively argue the de-coupling of Chinese economy from global supply chains, and stress the regulation on technological development, acquisition through investment, and free trade with China, while these arrangements could do serious negative impacts on substantial economy and stock markets. If the administration aims at such decoupling, the tension between the U.S. and China shall not be relaxed for a decade or more. On the other hand, if the administration simply tries to enhance its bargaining power to change Chinese unfair economic practices and ambitious challenges against the American leadership, there is a room for the Chinese government to assuage the U.S. concerns through concessions and economic statecraft.

Finally, relating to these points, is the engagement idea vanishing among the U.S. policy makers? Since the 1970s, many China hands have kept the hopes on Chinese democratization and also socialization in the international community through contribution to global governance. Last five years, it is said, by some security-concerned experts, such hopes have been into extinct. Do ideas to avoid Thucydides trap, through statecraft, have the possibility to arise? In addition, President Trump might be attracted by the idea to make “Big Bargain” with Chinese leaders, making a historical turning point of the world order, to claim it as his own achievement.


Japan’s Response to the U.S.-China Competition

Until the early spring of 2018, China had a long political season, and Xi Jinping entered his second term. In September, Abe showed up at the Chinese embassy’s ceremony of national day, voicing his intention to visit China and hope to invite Xi Jinping to Japan then. Beijing also made signals to keep the momentum for China-Japan relations. After having a warm summit meeting between Abe and Xi at Da Nang, APEC in November, on the occasion of Memorial Day ceremony for ‘Nanjing Massacre’ on December 13th, Xi did not make speech by himself, but the remarks were made by Yu Zhengsheng, chairman of Chinese People's Political Consultative Conference, emphasizing the points that Japan was a neighbor to construct the relationship along with the principles of Periphery Diplomacy toward their common future friendship.

Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Japan on the occasion of the China-Korea-Japan trilateral summit hosted by Japan in May, 2018. It was for the first time in eight years that Chinese prime minister visited Japan. At this occasion, in addition to the warm welcome for Li at Tokyo and Sapporo, the two leaders celebrated the conclusion of maritime-air communication mechanism between the two authorities and signed the China-Japan social welfare treaty, which both country’s industry long hoped to accomplish.

Not only top-leaders’ meetings have taken place, but foreign ministers also met each other very frequently during this period of time. After assuming the Foreign Minister in August 2017, Taro Kono and his counterpart Minister Wang Yi had held eight foreign minister meetings. According to the anonymous person in the Japanese ministry, the Chinese side had sought occasions energetically to hold foreign minister meetings.


Prospect and Further Research Agenda

As of February, 2019, China and Japan are still waiting how Trump would behave after the mid-term election of 2018, on his China policy and North Korean policy, respectively. Xi Jinping may pay state visit to Japan in 2019, but the items Beijing and Tokyo could agree on would depend on the situations of the US-China relations at that time: if this relationship between Beijing and Washington goes back to the normal negotiation phase, putting an end to strong criticism against China, China might not be motivated to approach towards Japan strongly. On the other hands, if Beijing and Washington fail to reach at any concessions, China should be tempted to enhance its relations with Japan, while Japan’s position might be more difficult. Japan, as a crucial ally for the U.S. strategy, should be asked from Washington to make a united front on China belligerent behaviors domestically and abroad. Japan would be put in a serious dilemma between the U.S.-Japan alliance and the China-Japan relations.

The Japanese government paid much attention to manage the triangular relationships, by explaining the restoration of the relationship with China aims to fix the worsen relationship since 2012 and also to persuade China into a more fair and responsible behavior in the international community. However, any interpretation that this move means tilting towards China should be rejected. It should be also noted, on the other hands, that Japan has not shared such comprehensive sense of competition against China, which was provoked by Vice President Mike Pence. Both Japan and the U.S. concern over Chinese unfair practice, providing subsidies to state-owned companies and failing to secure intellectual property rights, while the Trump administration’s economic nationalism is also against WTO rules and targets at its own allies. To make further research, we have to make deep dive on Japan’s response on American tighter controls against Chinese business and investment, and then on Japan’s diplomatic efforts with other countries toward rule based order-building.

Japan’s vision of Asian order was typical one to maintain American-led post war order in the time of shifting balance of power. For the last ten years, Japanese diplomacy has aimed to underpin American hegemony by stretching out its diplomatic and defense resources and by securitarizing its Indo-Pacific diplomacy through enhancing security partnership with a lot of nations (Sahashi 2018). However, Japan’s vision lies not in confrontational order-making process. As Akihiko Tanaka insists, while a new Cold War is theoretically possible as long as the Chinese communist party maintains its ruling system as such, it “should not be metamorphosed into a hot war and Japan should make efforts not only for strengthening the alliance for deterrence but also for enlarging a sphere for ‘peaceful co-existence’ with China.” He also argues, “Japan should not give up shaping China models of development and political reforms in the future” (Tanaka 2018). Even though Japan has not come up with good alternatives, and is still rejecting to accept a Sino-centric order vision, the recent behaviors suggest Japan’s dilemma is deepened in the time of incredible Trump foreign policy.



Author’s Biography

Ryo Sahashi is an Associate Professor of International Politics, Institute for Advanced Studies on Asia at University of Tokyo. Sahashi specializes in international politics and is currently focusing on East Asian security as well as Japanese security policy. His recent book is In a Search for Coexistence: the United States and Two Chinas during the Cold War (Tokyo: Keiso, 2015). In English, he recently edited Looking for Leadership: The Dilemma of Political Leadership in Japan (Tokyo and New York: Japan Center for International Exchange, 2015), and wrote on the impact of rising China on Asian order, Japan’s security policy and Japan-Taiwan relations. Now he is writing his next book on US-China competition and leading two group studies on the alliance and order after the end of the Cold War. He received his B.A. from International Christian University and his Ph.D. from the Graduate Schools for Law and Politics at the University of Tokyo. He also studied at Department of Political Science, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.