Sino-Japanese Relations: Lessons for Canada

Stephen Nagy

In what specific ways do Xi Jinping’s proposed global vision and the post-WWII rules-based order clash in terms of values, norms, and governance structures? What are the key areas of tension and contradiction?

When we look at China and the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping, versus Hu Jintao, it’s important to understand the continuity and vision but also the slight differences. I think that the Chinese Communist Party has been very consistent in that they see the current international system as not representing Chinese interests or the interests of the developing world. The norms and values that are inculcated into international institutions such as international law, human rights, and democracy are somewhat alien to Chinese civilization; contradictory to much of the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of how development should progress, and its views about Marxist Leninism with Chinese characteristics.

In short, the vision that the party would like is one where state sovereignty is prioritized, where each country has its own definitions of development, human rights, democracy, and rule of law, and one where the idea of universal values disappears because universal values would curb the power of the party and political leaders in China. From their standpoint, this would impact their sovereignty. When we think about this, I think the party has been consistent over the past 50 – 70 years, but Xi Jinping has enhanced the rhetoric and the determination to create a world order where sovereignty is the primary basis by which states engage with each other, and where there are no rules to curb the behaviour of states.

Can international institutions evolve to accommodate China’s aspirations without compromising fundamental principles of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law? What would be the potential trade-offs and risks?

This is the contradiction that Xi Jinping’s China has really demonstrated. China has worked with the United States, for example, on the Paris Climate Accords, which put together concrete objectives entailing where we should be going in terms of climate cooperation. We’ve seen cooperation on financial sanctions and regulations against terrorism. They’ve been part of the rulemaking process. I think that on the one hand, they say that we’re not part of the rulemaking process, and the current system doesn’t reflect Chinese values, but on the other hand, they’ve been perhaps the biggest benefactor in the world of that system.

They’ve been part of some key agreements and a part of international institutions such as the WTO, and the World Health Organization, they are one of the biggest providers of UN peacekeepers too. In some ways, they want to have their cake and eat it too. They say the current system doesn’t reflect their values and their institutions, but they are also actively involved. Can evolution continue? I believe so, but it has to be through dialogue and compromise.

It can’t be through economic coercion, or a Machiavellian might is right approach to changing the current international system. The track record of China over the past 10 years, quite frankly, has been through coercion, grey zone, and hybrid tactics to reshape the region’s security architecture, but also reshape what happens in international institutions to redefine or try to redefine ideas, human rights, and democracy. So the question is, will and does Beijing want to recreate the international system through compromise? Or does it want to do it in a subversive way that really undermines current international institutions?

What specific lessons can Canada draw from Japan’s middle power responses to China and adapt to its own context to build effective and constructive relations?

I think most importantly, our political leaders, whether it is Justin Trudeau or potentially Pierre Poilievre, need to have a disciplined, nuanced way in how they communicate to China and about China. When you watch the Japanese leaders, they continue to say to the Chinese leadership, “We would like a stable, constructive relationship.” When they talk about Taiwan, they talk about peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait. They don’t talk about Taiwan as a nation-state. They don’t talk about independence. They don’t talk about many issues, but that doesn’t mean they don’t do it behind closed doors. Discipline and nuanced communication at the leadership level is extremely important.

Second, the Japanese are fundamentally looking at the relationship with China through the lens of engagement, resilience, and deterrence. There is no future Japanese economy without a Chinese economy. Last year, there was about 391 billion U.S. dollars of trade between the two countries. So, they engage in China where they can through things like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and through environmental cooperation. There is even a trilateral free trade agreement on the table between South Korea, China, and Japan. China and Taiwan have applied to be considered for the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership as well.

Japan does not just outright say no to China, it engages as much as possible. But at the same time, it builds resilience into its economy by building multilateral relationships, such as the Japan-EU economic partnership and the Japan-EU infrastructure connectivity agreement. It has reciprocal access agreements with Australia and the UK. It’s trying to expand the TPP. So, it’s building resilience into its economy so that economic coercion and China’s size can’t be used against Japan. Lastly, it invested in deterrence. The new national security strategy that was launched in December 2022 is talking about strengthening its relationship with the United States, building new and innovative security partnerships with Australia and the UK, and others, working through many lateral organizations, such as the Quad, and acquiring some counter-strike capability.

This engagement, resilience, and deterrence side, based on leadership that is nuanced, and disciplined, allow for Japan to engage. At the same time, it creates disincentives for China to use military or economic power to attempt to coerce Japan. I think Canada and Canadian political leaders need to consider how Japan is managing its relationship with China.

How might the non-zero-sum approach be implemented in the face of China’s expansionist ambitions and ideological differences? What concrete steps can be taken to build trust and cooperation? How can Canada adopt a non-zero-sum mindset in its interactions with China?

Right now, anything about China is charged with controversy in the Canadian political context, because of the political influence allegations, and of course, the threats against Michael Chong’s family. These are very serious issues, but I think that our short-term play and long-term play may be a little bit different. In the short term, we should try and find crosswalks of cooperation to build trust. Last year, there was the Montreal Environmental Summit. This created some good dynamics in terms of communication. I think fostering more of these kinds of regular engagements on softer issues such as the environment may be the way to move forward.

I’m a firm believer in educational exchanges. I think that we should put some funds together to promote short to longer-term education exchanges in China to build expertise, specifically about China, within a broader Indo-Pacific context. I think only looking at China from China’s view results in this tendency to forget that it’s part of the Indo-Pacific as well. As we engage China and try to move away from a zero-sum arrangement, we have to do it with like-minded knowledgeable partners. We have to work with Japan, we have to work with South Korea, we have to work with Southeast Asian countries because they have the deepest experience working with China, balancing economics and politics. Of course, we have to work with the United States and the EU as well.

Building strong partnerships, potentially desecuritizing the relationship, and understanding the landmines that exist within the relationship with Taiwan are all important. That doesn’t mean we don’t support peace and stability across the Taiwan Straits as the Japanese and South Koreans and Southeast Asians do though, but rather move away from these ideas of Taiwanese independence. Again, we must build short-term dialogue through soft issues such as the environment, invest in education—so we can build more expertise on China, and within a broader Indo-Pacific context—and continue to invest in our like minded-partners to build a robust group of countries that share a diplomatic approach to engaging with China, while building resilience into the relationship. The deterrent side is ensuring that China doesn’t act aggressively in areas that are in conflict with Canada’s interests.

Let’s take a look at the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement. It’s a trading partnership, but it is also a scientific cooperation partnership, where they can engage in joint scientific development, opening up markets in the process. From Japan’s standpoint, it ensures that if there are political challenges in the relationship with China, that they can continue to benefit from other relationships, such as trade relations with the EU, making economic coercion from China much less effective. The more of these relationships Japan has, the better. Japan has taken a kind of layered approach—they have the TPP, they have reciprocal access to the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, the Japan-EU Economic Partnership Agreement, and the U.S-Japan mini trade deal that was negotiated at the end of the Trump administration.

These are all different levels of a multi-tiered trade approach that ensures Japan can continue to engage with China from a position of strength in their trade relationship. It also ensures that they’re resilient against economic coercion because they have all these other trading relationships. The simple expression in Canada is, “Don’t put all your eggs in one basket”, and the Japanese are really diversifying where they put their eggs to ensure that the reality of economic coercion doesn’t take place, or that its impact is much less.

Are there areas where Canada and Japan can be better partners, especially within the context of the shared goal of working alongside China while also challenging China where we need to?

Some points of change in the Japan-Canada relationship start with the six-point joint action plan between Japan and Canada that was announced by our Foreign Affairs Minister in October 2022. It really stresses six pillars where Canada and Japan can cooperate: maritime domain awareness, peacekeeping, supporting a rules-based order, environmental cooperation, supply chain cooperation, etc. I think that this was a good step. Canada’s Indo-Pacific strategy elaborated more upon the kinds of cooperation that’s occurring between Canada and Japan, but also other regions like South Korea, and Southeast Asia.

I think we can see more cooperation on trade advocacy and expanding trade—things like the Comprehensive Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership acts as a centre of gravity of how trade agreements can move forward in the future and shape the behaviour of states that want to benefit from that trade agreement. In the area of security, Canada doesn’t have as many naval vessels as we would like. To be frank, I don’t see them coming. So is the best solution for Canada to send three or four ships? Probably not—maybe one ship. We also need to think about how we can send capabilities, which means perhaps sending some of our military men and women to the region to share their expertise.

We have vast experience working within NATO and NORAD that can be leveraged to provide more capability in terms of maritime domain awareness, or perhaps even deterrence capabilities. Canada has had a big role in training Ukrainians to help defend their state against Russian aggression. This is something that we need to be thinking about—how Canada can contribute to Taiwan’s deterrence to ensure that the future of Taiwan-China relations is one that’s peaceful, and that if they do reunify, that it’s done through compromise and peaceful means.

Perhaps Canada has a role in enhancing deterrence with the Taiwanese as well. I think this is another area that perhaps they can work with the Japanese on. We also have diplomatic resources. We held a summit in Vancouver to discuss denuclearizing North Korea. We brought together middle powers; we brought together the United States to talk about that possibility. So, our diplomatic resources are important. We should think about how we can bring Canadian solutions to the region. We can use those diplomatic resources and work with our like-minded partners such as Japan.

Lastly, and I think really importantly, we need to think about what our comparative advantage is. Canada’s comparative advantages include energy and critical mineral security. I think we have a big role in working with countries like Japan or South Korea, to enhance our critical mineral and energy security role and ensure that we are providing the kinds of resources that help our friends and allies maintain strong and robust economies so that we can continue to engage with them and benefit from them. I think this is an area that is really underdeveloped, and we’ve, frankly, missed the boat. I encourage our government to continue to find ways to use those comparative advantages so we can be an energy and critical mineral superpower.

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