Book Review: “Intimate Rivals” by Sheila Smith

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Book information: New York: Columbia University Press, 2015. 361p. 21cm.

Since the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 by China and Japan, grounding their relations has been the high levels of economic interdependence.  Their extensive trade bonds prompt both to reap the fruits of prosperity, becoming the 2nd and 3rd largest world economies respectively.  One would suppose commercial affinity will pull them together lest the disruption of free trade.  This book, nonetheless, explores how Japan’s domestic politics and public support shaped their China’s policy, especially politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine and maritime boundaries in the East China Sea and island defense, that have long been the hurdles for these two neighbouring countries to overcome despite both capital accumulation.

Japan’s economy is now more extensively intertwined with China’s market, so is it more entangled with politics and Japan’s internal decision-making process.  Japan’s economic leaders who are in well-known business associations are often keen on advocating cordial relations with China, especially by enhancing economic links as a means to improve the frozen diplomatic relations with China.  Yet, China’s surging influence created an alarming source of concern for Japan.  For one thing, due to Japan’s dependence on imported food, anxieties of China’s food safety arouse after the discovery of China’s poising dumplings and Tokyo’s inability in negotiating with Beijing about the consumer protection.  For another, China, in recently years, has been pushing economic pressure to Japan in the context of political disputes, like its embargo of rare earths against Japan in the Chinese fishing trawler incident during 2010, and the Chinese boycott of Japanese products during Japan’s purchase of Senkaku Islands in 2012.  All this reduced the trust of Japanese public in the government’s negotiation ability with the Chinese, and gradually became more sceptical of the Chinese behaviour.

Meanwhile, China’s continuous advancement in the region, like its operations in the Exclusive Economic Zones and interpretation in the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), as well as the setting up of Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), also soared public discomfort and triggered new waves of nationalism in Japan.  After the island dispute of Chinese fishing trawler captain ramming Japan Coast Guard ships, Japanese were shocked by their government’s inability to prevent recent China’s incursions into Japan’s waters. Despite the endeavour of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in grasping control of the boundaries of Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), activists still yearn for a stronger defense of Japanese sovereignty over the disputed territories, especially Senkaku Islands, through social media for public support, or sailing in choppy waters to wave the Japanese national flag.  In general, Beijing’s assertive stance in disputes over the rights of fisheries and undersea oil resources offer nationalists a platform to criticise their government for not defending territories effectively, and rekindled their faith in persuading the government to adopt a harder stance towards Beijing.

Another factor that heated up the friction between two countries is the regular visits of Japanese top leaders to the Yasukuni Shrine that honoured Class-A war criminals.  In the eyes of Chinese, as the shrine is synonymous with revisionist account of Japan’s imperial history, some Japanese have perceived China’s criticism as an unwelcome intrusion into their domestic politics.  In the meantime, the internal voices in Japan become much more diversified.  The shrine has been a controversy between conservative nationalists who thirst for restoring honour to the state and postwar liberals who regarded the memorial visit as an opposition of Article 20 of postwar constitution.  Despite China’s opposition, for leaders like Koizumi, visiting Yasukuni does not merely hinge on just paying respect to wartime perished souls in which the Japanese regarded as patriots, but as a symbol for disagreeing foreign criticism of Japan’s war history.  Such long-standing historical contentions, admittedly, exacerbated the contemporary Sino-Japanese relations and hardly unsolved.

Due to China’s advancement in the region, wide diversity of Japanese interests of China policy complicated the government’s decision-making power.  Japan’s interactions with China no longer just fall on the negotiations between country’s representatives, but also on myriads of stakeholders like the public, businessmen and members from political parties in four detailed case studies in the book.  Overall, this book provides fruitful information on how foreign policy mirrors domestic political movements and a fascinating glimpse towards this intricate web of these two vital Asian states.  For those curious about foreign policy, this book will enlighten you with the paradoxical phenomenon “Hot economics, Cold politics” of Sino-Japanese relations, as the book title suggests. ♦

P.S. Thank you John for recommending this informative book 🙂

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