Event Report “Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century”

On September 19, 2017, the Munk School of Global Affairs hosted Richard McGregor for a discussion on his new book Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century at the Vivian and David Campbell Conference Facility. The event was sponsored by the Asian Institute and co-sponsored by the Munk School of Global Affairs, Centre for the Study of Global Japan, and Centre for the Study of the United States. Richard McGregor is an award-winning journalist and author, who focuses on the political and economic reality in East Asia, primarily China and Japan, and reports national security issues in Washington, D.C. He was the Financial Times bureau chief in Beijing and Shanghai between the year 2000 and 2009 and headed the Washington office for four years from 2011. His previous book on the Chinese Communist Party, The Party, was critically acclaimed and won numerous awards in the United States and overseas. The event was chaired by Professor Rachel Silvey of the Asian Institute, along with discussants Professor Louis Pauly and Professor Lynette Ong. Featuring an in-depth analysis of the main themes of Asia’s Reckoning provided by Richard McGregor himself and a series of discussion, the event highlighted the critical reality of the toxic rivalry between China and Japan, and brought about critical reflection on the postwar structure in East Asia.

Asia’s Reckoning is a book that focuses on the Sino-Japanese relations and the United States. Richard McGregor first pointed out the highly consequential relations between China and Japan – the world’s second and third largest economies respectively. If China and Japan were friendly towards each other, the landscape and relations of contemporary Asia, such as China-Taiwan relations and North-South Korean relations, would be drastically different. However, China and Japan do not get along.

As the unsolved Chinese Civil War and Korean War drag on, Sino-Japanese relations have been worse than ever. Instead of seeing an end to the stalemate, historical events that had led to current hostility between the two remain unsolved and continue to reoccur.

There were several themes that McGregor pointed out and discussed during the event. First, he raised the fundamental question – why don’t China and Japan get along? The answer is that, despite similar background and historical events, the two Asian giants have always struggled to see each other as equals. Secondly, there’s the War. Japanese never fully apologized for the atrocities they did during the Second World War and the Chinese view this as a lack of respect. Last, the role of the United States in postwar East Asia significantly complicated the situation. Japan has been dependent on U.S. protection and support since the War and has remained a close military and political ally to the United States. For the Chinese, however, U.S. presence in Asia has been disturbing. China is a hegemon in Asia and wants the United States to leave its sphere of influence—slowly nonetheless, as a quick transition could damage current order. For China, the ultimate goal is to be able to exert its power in Asia free of U.S. influence.

With regards to the reality of Sino-Japan-U.S. relations, McGregor raised an unlikely yet interesting question – what if China and Japan team up with each other and turn against the United States? As unlikely as it sounds, McGregor pointed out, there have been trends suggesting such a scenario. And in fact, the U.S. does want China and Japan to get along, although not too close. The United States wishes to see a friendly Sino-Japanese relation but not too friendly to the point where the two push the U.S. out of the picture. McGregor added that the question he raised was, of course, a hypothetical one since there has been so much distrust between China and Japan that such a phenomenon is very unlikely.

China never asked for an official apology from the Japanese after the Second World War; they just forgot about it until it came back in the 1980s. Many Chinese have started to be aware of this painful past and grew angry at Japan’s seemingly nonchalant attitude. The Japanese government, however, could not understand why China began to recollect past antagonism. The Japanese thought China would eventually be tired of asking for apologies; nevertheless, China keep pushing for it until today. A reconciliation of the Second World War between China and Japan seems unlikely in the foreseeable future.

So how does the United States fit into this landscape? China is much stronger these days. Current Chinese leader, Shi Jinping is facing and governing a China that is very different from his predecessors. China wants to it make clear, especially towards the Japanese, that China is a geopolitical reality in Asia whereas U.S. existence in Asia is a geopolitical choice. And then there’s Trump. Where does he fit in? McGregor pointed out that, Trump’s attitude towards China today was the exact same attitude he had towards the Japanese back in the 1980s. Back then, Japan was exporting considerably to the United States, and so is China today. Trump voiced his antipathy against such trading pattern. Nonetheless, Trump seems to be valuing the role of Japan during his current presidency. Since his electoral victory, Trump has vowed to protect Japan ardently – perhaps a little too ardently (28 times in total) – and instead of making his determined stance clear, he has the Japanese worried about the possibility of a more unpredictable U.S.-Japan alliance.

The two discussants highly praised Richard McGregor’s effort in Asia’s Reckoning: China, Japan, and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century. Professor Pauly thought McGregor has the magic of telling stories that make people want to read and that the book helps the readers understand how Realism applies to Asia more apparently than ever these days. It is difficult to imagine a different approach for the Japanese to take other than Realism, albeit dangerous. Professor Ong, on the other hand, looked at the future of Sino-Japanese relations quite differently. While McGregor foresees an inevitable clash, in any shape and form, between the two, Professor Ong questioned such prediction. As economic ties between China and Japan strengthen, conflicts are less likely in her understanding: there is simply too much at stake. McGregor anticipates a clash, but wonders whether China would really take action and when China would gather enough confidence to fight Japan, though not necessarily in the form of war.

The event stimulated conversations on the increasingly important political situation in East Asia and the United States’ role within such system. Regardless of what Sino-Japanese relations might look like in the future, Richard McGregor’s new book provided the readers with new insights and critical analysis to an interesting possibility.

Ching-Lin Tiffany Kao is a third-year student studying International Relations and History at the University of Toronto. She currently serves as an Event Reporter for Synergy: The Journal of Contemporary Asian Studies, East Asian section. She is interested in cross-straits relations, including the socioeconomic situation and cultural similarities and differences in China and Taiwan.

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