Japanese academic: China imposing its ‘Asian values’ on its neighbours

Comments by Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi recently to Japanese and South Korean guests at a forum that they could never be a Westerner, and encouraging greater China-Japan-South Korean cooperation have ignited some backlash in Japan. Academic Shin Kawashima says that it would be almost unthinkable for Japan and South Korea to respond to such a call from China.
Chinese Communist Party's foreign policy chief Wang Yi speaks as Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korea's Foreign Minister Park Jin look on during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, 13 July 2023. (Mast Irham/Pool via Reuters)
Chinese Communist Party's foreign policy chief Wang Yi speaks as Japan’s Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and South Korea's Foreign Minister Park Jin look on during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three Foreign Ministers’ Meeting in Jakarta, Indonesia, 13 July 2023. (Mast Irham/Pool via Reuters)

Chinese Politburo member and Director of the Office of the Central Commission for Foreign Affairs Wang Yi’s recent remarks concerning Japan and South Korea have caused some controversy.

At the International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation held in Qingdao on 3 July, Wang Yi emphasised the geographical proximity and historical relationship between China, Japan and South Korea, and pointed out the closeness of current economic ties, calling the three countries “inseparable partners”.

Second, he said that China and South Korea have succeeded in breaking away from the Cold War mindset, and that their experience and wisdom were well worth referencing. He also called for the three countries to promote consensus between governments through the people, promote relationships through economic ties, and promote communication between central governments through local exchanges. In this way, he advocated achieving goals such as activating the cooperation and exchange mechanism of the three countries, restarting trilateral cooperation, and jointly revitalising Asia and benefiting the world.

These remarks, with the former reference to racial characteristics, generated a strong backlash in Japan.

At the sidelines of the meeting, he also said, “No matter how blonde you dye your hair, how sharp you shape your nose, you can never become a European or American.” He added that “most Europeans and Americans can’t tell China, Japan and South Korea apart” and that “We must know where our roots lie.”

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Wang Yi at the International Forum for Trilateral Cooperation in Qingdao, 3 July 2023. (Chinese Foreign Ministry website)

Shortly after this, on 5 July, Wang Yi met with Yohei Kono, former speaker of the lower house and now president of the Japanese Association for the Promotion of International Trade, who was visiting China, and said that breaking new ground in China-Japan relations included “steering clear of external disruptions” and “jointly maintaining the hard-won peace and stability in Asia”. He also said statements that “any contingency for Taiwan is a contingency for Japan” were “ridiculous and dangerous”.

These remarks, with the former reference to racial characteristics, generated a strong backlash in Japan.

China is trying to conclude that international relations based on democracy and rules are founded not on universal principles of the world, but on a “culture” peculiar to Europe and the US.

Excluding the US

Various intentions can be seen in Wang Yi’s comments with regards to Japan and South Korea. First, while he seems to advocate solidarity among Japan, China and South Korea, his intention in doing so appears to be to exclude the US. Wang Yi criticised the relationships Japan and South Korea have with the US, bearing in mind their respective alliances.

Second, his stance seems to be that Asian affairs should be handled by Asians; the leader of Asia should be China; and China should take the lead in shaping the Asian order. Third, by praising China’s relationship with South Korea instead of treating Japan and South Korea on the same level, Wang Yi’s remarks may be intended to divide Japan and South Korea.

China is trying to conclude that international relations based on democracy and rules are founded not on universal principles of the world, but on a “culture” peculiar to Europe and the US. China would say that Asia has its own Asian values. That is why China is urging Japan and South Korea to stand on the side of Asia, rather than following Western values and views of order, because they are Asian countries.

Japan and South Korea unlikely to take China’s lead

It is almost unthinkable that Japan and South Korea would respond to such a call from China. Based on the premise of the Japan-US alliance, Japan has recently strengthened its relationship with NATO, partly due to the impact of the war in Ukraine. In South Korea, the Chinese ambassador to South Korea’s recent comments about Seoul’s China policy have caused controversy, and sentiment towards China in the country has deteriorated significantly. Meanwhile, Japan-US-ROK cooperation is being emphasised more than ever, and concrete cooperation is now being promoted. These various cooperation frameworks target none other than China, followed by Russia.

Relationships can be undermined by appeals for friendship and goodwill that disregard the realities of the situation.

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US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate John Kerry and Chinese top diplomat Wang Yi shake hands before a meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China, 18 July 2023. (Florence Lo/Reuters)

However, trilateral dialogue among Japan, China and South Korea will continue in 2023. Dialogue with China was also advocated at the G7 Hiroshima Summit. The US will be sending officials to Beijing to promote talks between ministers and leaders. And Japan too is holding defence ministers’ and foreign ministers’ meetings, while private-sector exchanges are recovering.

Given the long-term “competition” expected between the US and developed countries and China, this means that while increasing deterrence on the one hand, they will also explain their intentions to China on the other. This is because it is considered necessary to try to “communicate” with one another.

However, no matter how much political “dialogue” or “exchange” is promoted, such talk is different from the actual “improvement” of relations. The Chinese government understands this, which is probably why it is bringing up the traditional slogan of promoting consensus between governments through the people.

But we are no longer in the era of “friendly exchanges”. More than 80% of Japanese public opinion is negative towards China, and South Korea’s feelings towards China continue to deteriorate. Although it is said that developing relationships based on favorable public perception is beneficial, doing so in reality is quite challenging. Relationships can be undermined by appeals for friendship and goodwill that disregard the realities of the situation. The neighbouring countries of Japan, China and South Korea must react in a way that fosters ties based on reality.

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