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China should consider how Japan built lasting regional partnerships

Beijing has a unique opportunity to act on issues of vital importance

| China
Xi Jinping delivers a speech during the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party in October 2017: Beijing seeks to reassert China's place after he talked of ending the nation's history of humiliation.   © Reuters

Tomoo Kikuchi is a professor at the department of economics, Korea University and an adjunct senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies in Singapore. Yuexin Rachel Lin is a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Exeter.

While COVID-19 has overshadowed 2020, the signing in November of the 15-member Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was one positive development.

The signatories -- the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand -- account for about 30% of the world's population, gross domestic product and trade.

Yet despite foreseeable economic benefits, some have criticized RCEP for not including chapters on labor rights, environmental protection, cross-border data flows or market disciplines on state-owned enterprises that are included in the rival 11-member Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership led by Japan.

Concerns that China will overwrite RCEP rules and dominate regional trade took an unexpected turn when Chinese President Xi Jinping surprised the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November by announcing that China will "favorably consider" joining the TPP.

After then-President Donald Trump withdrew the U.S. from the TPP in 2017, there is now a stronger impetus for the Biden administration to take steps toward rejoining the agreement with hopes that Thailand, Taiwan and South Korea might follow, while the U.K. formally applied for the TPP on Feb. 1.

Japan's Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi stressed that any new member must meet TPP's high regulatory standards. This is not a political tactic to entice the U.S. to join and keep China out. Upholding the strictest standards -- be they on the environment, labor, intellectual property or state-owned enterprises -- is Japan's way of safeguarding its post-World War II identity.

Today, as China's economic and military influence expands to every corner of the world, Japan's past expansion and how it has built mutually beneficial relationships with ASEAN member countries based on international norms and the rule of law offer lessons for China.

Japan first began to reestablish relations with Asian countries in 1951 with the signing of the San Francisco Peace Treaty, followed by the paying of reparations to Burma as Myanmar was then known, the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam, and later by offering grants-in-aid to China, South Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Malaysia and Singapore.

Japan's subsequent economic expansion across Asia, however, came to be seen as a kind of economic imperialism, culminating in anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots in Jakarta and Bangkok in 1974, until the end of the Vietnam War produced a major shift in Japan's approach to the region. In 1977, then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda toured the ASEAN countries, delivering a speech in Manila that articulated Japan's three main foreign policy pillars.

In what became the Fukuda Doctrine, Fukuda stated that Japan "rejects the role of a military power," "will do its best for consolidating the relationship of mutual confidence and trust based on heart-to-heart understanding with these countries," and "will be an equal partner of ASEAN and its member countries." Since then, Japan became ASEAN's largest trading partner and its largest investor.

Then-Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, left, is given a ceremonial send-off at Paya Lebar Airport after his two-day official visit to Singapore in August 1977.   © Singapore Press/AP

Today, China is ASEAN's largest source of imports and rivals Japan when it comes to investment, with Beijing seeking to reassert China's place in the world after what Xi Jinping has described as a "century of humiliation" that started with the Qing dynasty's defeat in the First Opium War in 1842.

"From 2020 to 2035... we will strive for the next 15 years to fundamentally realize socialist modernization," Xi told the 19th National Congress of the Chinese Communist Party in 2017. "From 2035... we will strive for another 15 years to build China into a prosperous, strong, democratic, cultured, harmonious and beautiful modern socialist power."

Meanwhile, as China expands its military bases in the South China Sea and presses ahead with territorial disputes with the Philippines and Vietnam, Beijing's global infrastructure development strategy, known as the Belt and Road Initiative, has taken on a strategic military component.

In order to project military power and secure vital sea lanes for its energy supply, China is suspected of building a network of logistics assets facilities dubbed the "string of pearls" that includes ports in Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka, as well as the Ream naval base and Dara Sakor sea resort in Cambodia.

China's divide-and-rule strategy has even encompassed the European Union, where states have proved unable to develop a joint approach to China. As with Laos, Cambodia and Myanmar within ASEAN, Chinese finance is attractive to many central and east European countries seeking to upgrade their infrastructure.

Still, China is seeing a backlash develop over its global investments, while its so-called debt-trap diplomacy has unsettled many. As China marches toward great trade and technology dominance, further conflicts with the U.S. are inevitable.

What China must remember is that it needs the world on its side to realize the "Chinese dream." Power cannot replace trust, confidence or equal relationships. If China insists that it has the right to persevere in its current course of expansion, with all the friction this entails, it will not end well.

China should temper power with authority and combine might with influence. Its rise gives Beijing the ability to not only flex its muscles but champion the norms and values that have captured imaginations around the world.

China has a unique opportunity to articulate and act on issues of vital importance from the environment to public health in ways that draw the international community together under a common umbrella. Surely, China deserves a rightful place in the world. But the Chinese dream must become everyone else's dream too.

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