For a long time, there has been a close resemblance between the "coopetition" (cooperation and competition) in the Sino-Japanese relationship and the cross-strait relationship. The relationships of Taiwan and Japan with China share an interactive structural framework of political passivity and economic activity.
By comparing the following news stories we can see the current status of this structural framework. One is the recent statement by the US and Japan identifying security in the Taiwan Strait as a "common strategic objective" for the US-Japan Security Treaty, which was strongly rebutted by China. The other is increasingly close Sino-Japanese trade ties: Total bilateral trade last year reached US$167.8 billion, an increase of 25.7 percent, and the growth rate of China's imports from Japan is 27.2 percent, making Japan the largest importer.
Although the news reports seem contradictory, the interactive patterns between China and Japan from a historical angle may bring a new perspective.
"Stabilizing relations with the surrounding areas" and "manipulating economic and commercial leverage" have always been two focal points in China's foreign relations. Beijing has three objectives in consolidating its control of the surrounding areas.
The first is eliminating threats to its border regions and trade routes. The second is acquiring suzerainty over adjacent nations, which will then accept a China-centered world view. And the third is establishing imperial authority. In short, China's traditional world view is a China-centered hierarchical international system.
The political implications of international trade are more important to China than economic benefits. China has always been proud of its self-reliance, vast territory and rich natural resources. These advantages have always been the economic leverage used by China to force its neighbors into political submission. The motive for "tributary" trade interaction thus lies in convincing small neighboring countries to accept China's supremacy.
But this traditional Confucian hierarchical world system is on the verge of collapsing following twists and turns in recent Chinese history. A nationally weaker China therefore pursued the next best thing, and took a low-key approach to seeking independence, sovereignty and equality in its international position and participation in the international community. This, however, does not mean that China has forsaken the strategic thinking from its imperial days.
Today, China still wants to control or gain a strategic influence over its surrounding areas. It will achieve this by restoring the dominance over the surrounding nations that it lost during the period of decline and break-up. By doing so, China's expansion is defensive, and the motive is to respond to threats to its external security and even restore its original influence in order to ensure the stability of domestic economic development.
The strategic role China has played in its relationship with Japan and North Korea in recent years is evidence that China is seeing a revival in national strength in a manifestation of its traditional imperial prestige. China's "great-nation diplomacy" has replaced former paramount leader Deng Xiaoping's (鄧小平) step-by-step approach to maintaining a low profile and not taking the lead. China is adopting a strategic approach by placing other nations in a position of structural reliance on China by restoring its traditional regional prestige and using its trade advantages.
A power shift is usually achieved by unleashing a war. Until the present, the US and Japan have had a tight grip on East Asian military, political and economic vantage points. But, apparently, China's "grand strategy" is gradually having an impact on the US' and Japan's regional hegemonic interests.
This does not mean that a shift in power must occur, nor that a war is unavoidable, because domestic political choices are also important. On the contrary, a stronger economic and commercial interdependence and closer interaction with the international community will allow China to become part of the world order, and increase the cost to China of starting a war, as well as give China the respect and prestige necessary to prevent conflict. In the same way, China should reduce friction resulting from its imperial aspirations in diplomatic dealings with other countries.
Johnny Lin holds a master's degree from the Graduate Institute of East Asian Studies at National Chengchi University.
TRANSLATED BY LIN YA-TI
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