With both President Xi of China and Prime Minister Abe of Japan visiting the United States this month, it’s time to realize that for the first time in American history, we are attempting to manage relations with a strong China and a strong Japan at the same time. Since 1776, the Chinese have not been real world players, but today they are trying to achieve Xi’s “dream” and they have the resources to do it. Under Abe, Japan also is showing signs of stirring out of passivity by enacting new laws that allow the Japanese military to engage in operations outside of Japan. Further, both nations remain economic giants. China is now the second largest economy in the world. Japan is the third largest but it has only one-tenth as many people as China. So on a per capita basis, it is 10 times as rich.
At the moment, the Americans have enormous economic and strategic stakes in each country. Militarily, we are aligned with Japan and maintain troops in Japan. Economically, the engagement with China has exploded past the point that anyone could have imagined when the country first re-opened to the West in 1979, when I was a young correspondent in Hong Kong. Financially, China and Japan are the two biggest purchasers of U.S. government debt. In many ways, the center of the world’s economic and financial power has shifted to East Asia.
So how can the Americans get what we need out of our engagement with these two powerhouses and how do we help maintain stability? That should be the central question we are asking ourselves. It’s a three-person ballet and America traditionally does not do well at complex dances.
It seems we are using our military alliance with Japan to create a counterbalance against China’s military, which is clearly pushing out into the East China and South China Seas. At what point do the U.S. and Japan do something tangible to demonstrate that these forays are not acceptable? And at what point does the United States do something tangible to retaliate against massive Chinese cyber-snooping? technology tensions are also clearly mounting. It appears the Obama Administration does not want to take clear actions that risk other aspects of the relationship.
This is the core issue: we consider nations to be either friends or enemies. But we have clear points of collaboration with China and clear points of conflict. Can we become sophisticated enough to confront China in areas of disagreement while emphasizing cooperation in other areas? The Chinese are smart enough to manage competition/cooperation situations. They’ve been doing it for thousands of years. Can we become that smart?