Chinese academic: Japan is the ‘hidden warrior’ behind China-US competition

Chinese academic Deng Qingbo examines the recent Alaska meeting between China and the US, and concludes that Japan plays a hidden but crucial role in how the China-US relationship is developing. As Japan has much to gain from conflicts and intense competition between China and the US, it may indulge in actions that could worsen such big power competition and land the world in a disastrous situation.
A general view shows the skyline of Tokyo's Shinjuku area on 22 March 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
A general view shows the skyline of Tokyo's Shinjuku area on 22 March 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

The China-US meeting in Anchorage, Alaska, has captured the world’s attention. As public opinion zeroes in on China and the US, it is easy to overlook the “hidden warrior” working behind the scenes: Japan.  

It is important to note that “hidden warrior” is different from “shadow warrior” (kagemusha in Japanese). During the Sengoku period in Japan’s history, vulnerable feudal lords often engaged people from various lands to be decoys to ensure their own safety. These impersonators were known as “shadow warriors”. But “hidden warrior” in this context means a person who hides behind the scenes to hatch conspiracies and make trouble. 

On the surface, it may seem as if the US had initiated the Alaska meeting and China had turned up upon invitation. But Japan had played an important role. Prior to the meeting, the leaders of the US, Japan, India and Australia met at a virtual summit. Following which, the US separately held two “2+2” meetings with Japan and South Korea. Upon closer observation, while the US maintained a high profile and Japan, Australia, and India seemed to be accommodating the US, Japan’s role is actually quite significant.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin leave after their joint press conference with Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi after their 2+2 meeting at Iikura Guest House in Tokyo, Japan, on 16 March 2021. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/AFP)
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Defence Secretary Lloyd Austin leave after their joint press conference with Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi and Defence Minister Nobuo Kishi after their 2+2 meeting at Iikura Guest House in Tokyo, Japan, on 16 March 2021. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Pool/AFP)

What became the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) was initiated by Japan’s former Shinzō Abe administration in the first place. After the latest Quad summit, India’s Narendra Modi government and Australia showed great restraint in giving its opinions on China, more or less demonstrating that they have learnt their lesson and are being extra cautious to some extent. Japan was the only exception. After the 2+2 meeting which followed on the heels of the Quad summit meeting, the Japanese released news of the Japanese prime minister visiting the US soon. Such behaviour shows Japan’s enthusiasm in winning over the US.

Out of fear that the US would soften its stance against China, Japan sought to affirm the US’s efforts in containing China. 

Following the meeting, Japan even showed its true colours, breaking diplomatic protocol by singling out and harshly criticising China in its joint press statement with the US. It can be said that Japan is stepping forward to bolster the US’s containment of China since India and Australia have proved somewhat of a letdown, and South Korea has outrightly refused to play along.   

Japan has everything to gain from US-China discord

Out of fear that the US would soften its stance against China, Japan sought to affirm the US’s efforts in containing China. It also laid bare the US’s intention of targeting China, thereby subjecting China and the US to greater pressure from public opinion and the people, exacerbating distrust and forcing all to drop their masks of cordiality, leaving them little room to backtrack. In fact, if Japan had not given the US the wrong impression that its allies were behind its efforts to contain China, the US may not have been that arrogant in tone and position during the Alaska meeting, and China and the US could have ended the talks on a better note.

At the Alaska meeting, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken repeatedly emphasised that the reason why he was using harsh words against China was because he was hearing “deep satisfaction that the United States is back, that we're reengaged with our allies and partners”, and “deep concern about some of the actions your government [China] has taken”. Clearly, the country that is most satisfied towards the US and most dissatisfied with China can only be Japan.

Only Japan can use US-China discord as a cat’s paw to reap multiple benefits.

The Captain Cook hotel is pictured in Anchorage, Alaska where talks are underway between US and Chinese delegations on 18 March 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/Pool/AFP)
The Captain Cook hotel is pictured in Anchorage, Alaska where talks took place between US and Chinese delegations on 18 March 2021. (Frederic J. Brown/Pool/AFP)

Only Japan can use US-China discord as a cat’s paw to reap multiple benefits. First, greater US-China conflict would impede China’s development and prevent China from further surpassing Japan, thus curbing Japan’s ambitions to regain dominance in the region. Second, Japan would gain importance in the eyes of both China and the US. Compared to India and Australia, Japan’s industrial chain is almost as developed as that of the US, and it is more capable of taking the place of US industries and seizing opportunities in China if the US exits the Chinese market. Third, US-China discord will also throw the Asia-Pacific region in disarray, making the conditions conducive for Japan to deepen its relations with other countries in the region, as well as expand its market and strategic influence.

Next, if US-China competition catapults China and the US into war, Japan can be expected to reap similar benefits as it did when China and the US were embroiled in the Korean War. This would help Japan get out of its long recession. Additionally, such a scenario would also force the US to rely more heavily on Japan, thus helping Japan gain more support for Japan’s competition with Russia over what it calls the Northern Territories, and with China for sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.    

Further, China-US conflict would also prompt Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party to risk seeking independence, creating a conducive environment for Japan to infiltrate Taiwan. Also, intense China-US competition would also force the US to relax its restrictions on Japan, providing Japan with a smoother process in amending its constitution and in moving forward on its rearmament plans. It could even help Japan become a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council faster, among other possibilities.

On the surface, Japan and the US look like close allies. In fact, there are grudges both old and recent.

A Shinkansen N700 series, or high-speed bullet train, arrives at night in Tokyo, Japan, on 21 March 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)
A Shinkansen N700 series, or high-speed bullet train, arrives at night in Tokyo, Japan, on 21 March 2021. (Charly Triballeau/AFP)

In short, Japan is the most likely to benefit indirectly from a China-US conflict. And because the US is on the field while Japan is just waving a flag and cheering, its risk is actually very small. And more importantly, Japan adding fuel to the fire is also dragging the US into another strategic quagmire with China, which would lead to the US making an unsalvageable strategic error that would further weaken it or even cause its permanent downfall.

The real decoy

On the surface, Japan and the US look like close allies. In fact, there are grudges both old and recent. During World War II, Japan’s dreams of empire were ended by US bombs that caused heavy casualties, while until today, the US is still “occupying” Japan — US troops in Japan are ostensibly “protecting” Japan, while in fact acting as a deterrent against Japan’s military recovery and “normalisation”. Not to mention how the US made Japan suffer with the Plaza Accord and other measures, so that it lost decades of growth. And so, inciting an intense confrontation between the US and China could be seen as a form of payback against the US by Japan.

One might say that if China and the US were to face off, both sides would get hurt, which is what some political camps in Japan would be glad of. Actively inciting the US to contain China would not only hinder China’s development, but also be a way for Japan to retaliate against the US. From this perspective, the aggressiveness of US politicians in Alaska may have looked impressive, but it was merely the result of being incited by Japan and being used without realising it. Japan was the “hidden warrior” behind the China-US talks, while the US was the “shadow warrior” that showed its face while being used by Japan.

2+2
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (left) and Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi attend a joint news conference in Tokyo, Japan, 16 March 2021. (Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP/Bloomberg)

China has seen through Japan, which is why after the 2+2 meeting between Japan and the US, in a rare occurrence, it said Japan “willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal” and criticised it for “invite[ing] the wolf into the house”, “breaking faith”, and its “despicable behaviour” which is “deeply unpopular”. In fact, this was not just criticising Japan, but also an alert to the US to beware of Japan’s intentions. Unfortunately, US politicians — in their customary arrogance and strategic anxiety over China — have not listened. At the Alaska talks, China repeated its frank advice that the US should not be biased in listening and trusting, but the US clearly has not woken up. Of course, whether it really does not understand or is just pretending to be asleep is another question.

Japan’s actions will damage Asia-Pacific cooperation

The fact is, among China’s criticisms of Japan, one term may not be the most accurate — that is, Japan “willingly stoops to acting as a strategic vassal”. Actually, Japan does not want to be a US vassal; it is inciting and controlling the US behind the scenes. On the other hand, one term is accurate — Japan is “inviting the wolf into the house”, and is not shy about going against overall regional interests. Japan’s actions will damage cooperation between Asia-Pacific countries and pose grave risks to regional peace and growth, with more Asia-Pacific countries getting embroiled. So that would be Japan betraying overall regional interests for its own interests, which countries in the region should beware of. 

China’s diplomatic focus is on China-US relations, but in fact, the US ramping up its containment of China might not be happening without encouragement from Japan; after all, previous Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe did all he could to ensure that the US built a front to contain China. On China’s part, it should look long term and actively improve its relations with Japan. China also needs to stay alert and not assume that Japan will restrain itself in consideration of its trade relations with China. And when it comes to China-US relations, China needs to fully assess the influence from Japan.

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