Webinar on “The Present and Future of Japan-China Relations: How Will They Affect Southeast Asia?”

In this webinar, Professor Akio Takahara discussed Japan and China’s relationship and how will they balance their competition and cooperation.


Wednesday, 30 June 2021 — The relationship between China and Japan — respectively the second and third-largest economies in the world — is especially consequential for the region. Professor Akio Takahara evaluated the current state of Sino-Japanese relations and assessed its implications for Southeast Asia in a webinar at the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute entitled “The Present and Future of Japan-China Relations: How Will They Affect Southeast Asia?”. A leading Japanese foreign policy expert, Professor Takahara is a Professor of Contemporary Chinese Politics at the Graduate School of Law and Politics and the Graduate School of Public Policy (GraSPP) at The University of Tokyo.

Prof Akio Takahara
Prof Akio Takahara summed up Suga’s approach to China as having “competition at the forefront” while downplaying “his willingness to cooperate”. Ms Hoang Thi Ha moderated the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Prof Takahara opened with an overview of Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s “tough but nuanced” stance towards China. Although Suga has rejected the possibility of a NATO-like coalition against China, Japan under his leadership has raised concerns about China’s behaviour in the Taiwan Strait and the human rights situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang. Prof Takahara summed up Suga’s approach to China as having “competition at the forefront” while downplaying “his willingness to cooperate”.

Suga’s stance is partly driven by the growing negative public perception of China among the Japanese population, fuelled by the two-way travel breakdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the frequent intrusions of Chinese vessels into the contiguous waters surrounding the Senkakus island, and the rapid rise in China’s defence budget (which currently outstrips Japan’s military expenditure four-fold). Nevertheless, economic cooperation between the two Asian giants remains strong: China is Japan’s largest trading partner with the bilateral trade volume almost equivalent to the combined amount of Japan-EU and Japan-US trade. In 2020, Japan’s exports of goods to China continued to grow despite the COVID-19 condition.

Prof Takahara thus argued that Japan has to balance the “two prongs” of cooperation and competition with China. In particular, he counselled that Japan should avoid placing excessive pressure on China to avoid the risk that moderate elements in the Chinese leadership, such as those of a reformist or an internationalist bent, are not needlessly marginalised. As such, “resolve, wisdom and resilience” is crucial: Japan will need to call out the words and deeds of China’s hardliners but also be pragmatic in cooperating with China whenever possible and necessary. 

For Prof Takahara, the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) should not be seen as an area of Sino-Japanese contention but as a possible avenue for collaboration. The FOIP is compatible with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) if we were to emphasise the economic (as opposed to the strategic) aspects of the FOIP and BRI. Describing the FOIP and BRI as akin to “constellations” made up of different “stars” (or projects), he suggested that redirecting our focus to individual “stars” might be more beneficial. While the FOIP and BRI may appear incompatible as rival constellations, it does not preclude China and Japan from cooperating in specific projects.

Nevertheless, Prof Takahara acknowledged challenges for such a BRI-FOIP tie-up, especially in identifying a suitable project. The former Japanese premier Shinzo Abe has stipulated four conditions before Japan would participate in the BRI: the project must be open, transparent, economically viable, and preserve the recipient country’s fiscal soundness. Moreover, the negative public opinion reduces the incentive for such cooperative ventures with China. Lastly, there are also internal debates within Japan about the value of such cooperation. For instance, the security and defence sector in Japan have different concerns and interests from the business community and those involved in the development and peacebuilding domain. Given the circumstances, Prof Takahara indicated that Southeast Asia and ASEAN could play an important role as a bridge-builder by identifying possible projects that Japan and China can cooperate on, such as in infrastructure development or the Mekong.

The presentation, which was attended by 104 participants from Singapore and abroad, was followed by a lively Q&A session. Prof Takahara elaborated on how China’s domestic politics can affect the possibility and scope of Sino-Japanese cooperation, especially given President Xi Jinping’s reputation as a hardliner and the increasing repression of dissent within China. He also discussed the challenges to Japan-China joint infrastructural projects in the region, such as in railway development, as well as the broader relationship between Japan and Southeast Asia. Other topics that Prof Takahara addressed include the impact of other external powers (such as the United States, the European Union and South Korea) on the relationship between China and Japan, the significance of the Indo-Pacific discourse, Japan’s response to the rising tensions over the Taiwan Strait, the emergence of the Quad and the post-pandemic trajectory of Sino-Japanese relations. 

Over 100 participants attended the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)