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A submission to Reinvention: An International Journal of Undergraduate Research

Cover page
Full name of author

Michael Yip

Department and University

Department of Politics and International Studies

University of Warwick
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103C Plaistow Lane, Bromley, Greater London, BR1 3AR, UK

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Title Page


As a dragon enters, the Rising Sun begins to set: A comparison of Japan’s and China’s leadership within East Asia

‘Leading’ and ‘powerful’ describe important agents in world affairs. These adornments, however, were not always monopolised by China as they seemingly are today. Such adjectives once applied exclusively to Japan. Whether they do at all is debated, forming the rationale for this article.
The article analyses three time periods that are historical, contemporaneous and pivotal to Sino-Japanese affairs. Firstly, the colonial era. Secondly, the post-war economic boom. Thirdly, China’s rise and Japan’s ‘Lost Decades’. Then, different types of leadership (political, economic and others) are discussed within the contexts of each time period. Finally, a medley of international relations theories (neo-realist, neoliberal, constructivist and others) perspectives are deployed to critique and evaluate. Overall, the research base is interdisciplinary, spanning: history, international political economy and international relations.
This article’s conclusion is fourfold. Firstly, a mutually exclusive ‘leadership dichotomy’ exists between China and Japan. (If China’s leadership is diminished in one area – Japan’s would rise.) Secondly, Japan’s leadership is no longer undisputed, but should not be fully dismissed. This is because of, thirdly, Japan’s alignment with the United States and how the US – even from afar – holds decisive influence in East Asia. Fourthly, China increasingly showcases leadership – but faces multiple problems and opposition.
China, Japan, Power, Leadership, East Asia

Today, mainstream consensus has accepted that China’s leadership rise is pervasive and potent. This article analyses how – even in China’s own backyard of East Asia – such conventional wisdom must require explanation and deeper nuance.
As regards an explanation, this article proposes that a zero-sum, mutually exclusive ‘leadership dichotomy’ exists between Japan and China. On its own, this dichotomy does not explain – in a causal way – how China has ‘risen’ and why Japan has ‘fallen’; however, it is an elegant way of expressing a general trend present in Sino-Japanese affairs for around 150 years. What explains any change in leadership would be the changes in culture, technology, economy, military affairs, domestic politics, diplomacy and the regional security landscape. These are some of categories this article uses when describing a specific area of leadership or leadership in a specific context.
In terms of ‘deeper nuance’, this article highlights how obstacles serve to agitate China’s leadership. Some of these obstacle are unique to China; others, in an ironic twist, are similar to Japan’s. An obstacle worthy of particular mention is how Japan – in conjunction with its ally, the United States (US) – still wields authority in the region. In the same breath that we can say ‘China’s leadership is not undisputed’, we can also say ‘Japan should not be fully dismissed’.
Theoretical and conceptual framework

Why are we focusing on ‘leadership’ instead of ‘power’?
If a ‘standard unit of measurement’ ever existed within the discipline of international relations, that unit would be ‘power’. It has been pored over and conceptualised time and again by successive generations of thinkers. Lukes identified three ‘faces’ of power, which can be extrapolated to international relations: making decisions, setting agendas and ideologies (Lukes, 2004). Rosecrance places an emphasis on economic power, such as the ability to enforce sanctions or initiate currency manipulation (Roscrance, 1986). Nye speaks of soft and hard power that, respectively, attract and compel (Nye, 2005). Wilson III believes that soft and hard power are used best when augmented together into ‘smart’ power (Wilson III, 2008). Strange highlights power that can be found not within the agents themselves, but within the frameworks and structures (created by some agents) that other agents abide or are constrained by (Strange, 1998). Hurrell identifies power within Bull’s ‘International Society’, and in doing so, holds that power harbours a values-based or ideational element (Hurrell, 2008). Finally, Marxists would suggest that power in international relations lie within the global factors of production (Marx, 1859). Power (and the balance of power) has been the single most important characteristic that is tested for, when thinkers have analysed a particular agent, trend or chronology of events.
The many conceptions of power may refer to agenda-setting abilities, culture or overt military force and many other things. However, the reason why this article deviates from strictly using ‘power’ as the variable to ‘test for’ is because it is weakly defined and does not lend itself to a definitive method of analysis. At this juncture, we can draw two conclusions. Firstly, because all conceptions of power only explain the means by which an agent may change the status quo, ‘power’ is weakly defined. This assertion is clearer below, when power and leadership are directly compared. However, to illustrate by allegory: whereas – in a multipolar global order – it is plausible to argue that many states are powerful in many ways, perhaps only one or two (by definition) can be argued as leading or exhibiting leadership. In the analysis between Japan and China, it is clear that leadership can only really be true for one. Secondly, there is no single and authoritative definition on power. In turn, this leads to a chain of analysis that could include some conceptions of power at the expense of others: this is not definitive.
Ultimately, a weak definition and a non-definitive method of analysis come together to hinder us in getting to the crux of the issue. Instead of asking ‘who is being assisted by what in their attempt to change the status quo?’ we want answers to: ‘who is actually affecting change of the status quo?’ Let us take the example of the Vietnam War (1955-1975), in which both the US and North Vietnam inarguably possessed and deployed ‘power’ in one form or another. Whereas the US possessed superior hard power (an ability to coerce) in the form of sophisticated military resources, the North Vietnamese possessed superior soft power (an ability to co-opt and attract) in the form of its own resolve to wage a slow and bloody guerrilla war – which the US had a lack of (Nye, 2005 : 100). How is it that soft power triumphed over hard power? Answering that question requires wholly separate discussion; however, it is clear that, whilst an analysis of power is certainly enlightening, it does not lend itself to arriving at the issue’s crux. The crux being: ‘how was North Vietnam able to change the status quo or, in other words, ultimately win the war?’
We now arrive at an unconventional alternative: ‘leadership’. This article defines leadership as acts and traits that clearly alter the status quo in issues, in such a way that gain – at the very least – the recognition of other stakeholders. Acts of leadership that are even stronger can win acquiescence, elicit support or draw respect and inspiration from others. Thinking in terms of being able to ‘acquire’, ‘possess’ or ‘deploy’ power never allowed an agent the conceptual possibility of attaining as penetrating, potent or pervasive an outcome as our definition of leadership does. (Even accumulations of ‘power’ do not meet the standard set by ‘leadership’.) These are the crucial lexical nuances that this article distinguishes throughout its analysis. Indeed, for the avoidance of doubt – whereas leadership by this definition requires power – agents possessing power do not automatically exercise leadership (or have a status of leadership conferred upon them). Leadership is of a ‘higher order’ than power or, perhaps, the ‘ultimate form’ of power. For the further avoidance of doubt, a balance of power is also not synonymous with a contest of leadership.
Another reason for focusing on ‘leadership’ as opposed to ‘power’ is that, in doing so, the article gives equal weight to both actors’ acts and traits – as well as the issues and stakeholder interests they operate in. For an analysis focused solely on raw power (for example, US naval strength) to be valid, it would not – by definition – have to focus on the conflicts they are engaged in, or the views of states that play host to US naval bases. Our hybrid approach gives a more well-rounded conclusion; moving away from types of commentary that has tended to focus only on one or the other.
Unanswered meta-issues surrounding leadership are also raised. For example, does leadership embody any of the following: symbolism, morality, radicalism or shifts of paradigm?
The arrangement is zero-sum and mutually exclusive because, in this case, Japan and China are rivals. In light of this, various schools of international relations theory complement our method of ‘testing for’ leadership. They include realism, neo-realism, neo-liberalism and constructivism. However, in situations where there relationship between the agents do not mirror Sino-Japanese relations, there is no reason why liberal or postcolonial interpretations, for example, could not be used in tandem.
A critique of history beckons in the main argument, because it shapes the contests for leadership today. Two historical periods are analysed. Firstly, the colonial era (1853-1945). Secondly, the post-war economic boom (1945-1991). Later on, leadership in a more contemporary context – China’s rise and Japan’s ‘Lost Decades’ (1980s-present) – is also critiqued. Concluding remarks follow thereafter.
The rise of Imperial Japan and China as Asia’s ‘Sick Man’

Japan – grasping economic, technological and cultural leadership
Throughout 3,500 years of written history and successive dynasties, China – at one point – produced a third of global GDP (Maddison, 2007 : 44). It began as a cradle of civilisation and expanded to cover around 9.5 million square kilometres, along with its own tributary states, equivalent to ‘colonies’ (Encyclopaedia Britannia, 2015). China was an imposing presence in the region: territorially, economically, culturally and militarily. After the First Sino-Japanese War (1894-95), however, Qing China no longer commanded the balance of material power or the contest of leadership. Before war, Japan – since 1543 and to varying degrees – began experiencing (and later, assimilating) Western cultural and technological influences (Suzuki, 2009 : 120-137). This was an instrument to attain further leadership but was also an intrinsic act of leadership.
200 year-old isolationism – enacted to limit Christian influences – was suddenly overturned with the unilateral act of US Commodore Perry in 1853 to force open Japan (Suzuki, 2005 : 145) (Totman, 1980 : 1-3).This triggered foreign trade treaties and the Meiji Restoration (1868-1912) (Nakabayashi, 2014 : 267-268). The Restoration institutionalised modernisation reforms, conceding that pre-industrial, feudal and traditional Japanese governance was insufficient to guarantee security and prosperity against external threats (Beasley, 1972 : 330). This, in less than thirty years, produced material power exhibited to defeat China: a regulated, industrialising economy with communications and infrastructure, technological innovation, Westernised education (Allinson et al., 2010 : 482), a navy modelled after the British (Evans et al., 1997 : 12) and an army modelled after the French and Prussians (Hevia, 2012 : 405-407).
In extension, there are three points:
Firstly: a comparison with China on the leadership of ‘opening up’. China was still a trading nation. However, trading with Nanban (‘southern barbarians’) massively contrasted to trading with familiar vassal states, allies or even known rivals. This conditioned knee-jerk reactions: wilfully spurning any opportunities presented by Nanban. China appears to have acquiesced to knee-jerking: rejecting McCartney’s British trade treaty in 1793 (Blackhouse et al., 1914 : 322-334) (Maddison, 2001 : 117). The Self-Strengthening Movement (c. 1861-1894), which attempted modernisation, stagnated due also to refusals to accept foreign capital, competition and expertise (Gray, 2003 : 110-113). Such high-handedness contributed to an existential decline of a Chinese civilisation, and defeats in the First and Second Opium Wars – as well the First Sino-Japanese War.
Contrastingly, Japan was first in East Asia to symbiotically fuse Western innovations with national identity and interests. ‘Opening up’ was an act of cultural leadership in and of itself: successfully overturning, for the first time, habitual socio-cultural, socio-economic and socio-political paradigms prevalent that instituted centuries-old isolationism – on an East Asian, regional scale. It fundamentally changed the status quo mindset that East Asian decision-makers could draw insight from. This led to two new ‘leaderships’: in terms of economics and technology. Japan’s economy was the most advanced in East Asia and was built of materiel from the cutting edge of technology in the region. Ideationally, these resonate with culturally cosmopolitan and economic components of Japanese soft and hard power (‘smart power’) – and underlie Japan’s global appeal today (Otmazgin, 2012 : 38-39) (Shinohara, 1991 : 21) (Heng, 2014 : 180). Residually, opening up to the US also provides diplomatic security today: Japan benefits from Pax Americana.
Secondly, the mutually exclusive leadership dichotomy holds true. China – who had previously generated a third of global GDP at the time of McCartney’s visit (The Economist, 2013a), boasted a lucrative tributary network and was a net cultural exporter – was demoted as the ‘sick man of Asia’ in its ‘century of humiliation’. Indeed, defeat in the 1894-95 war represents a corollary for – or at least adumbrates – Japan’s initial grasp for leadership not only in the aforementioned areas, but also in others (security, military and politics). This was recognised globally by the West when Japan – alongside Entente Powers – defeated the Central Powers during the First World War (1914-1918), when Japan – alongside the ‘Big Four’ – was a victorious signatory at the Paris Peace Conference (1919) and, finally, when Japan further acquired the East Asian territories that Germany ceded (Kawamura, 1997 : 512-517 and 524-526). History recognises this and conferred ‘Great Power’ status upon Japan throughout the Meiji, Taishō, Shōwa eras and up until the atomic bombings (cumulatively, 1868-1945).
Thirdly, every development of Japanese leadership has been underpinned – or at least decisively impacted upon – by interventions of US hegemonic agency. Interestingly, as Perry’s gunboat diplomacy shows, forcibly leveraging Japan into acting as a proxy for US interests at the time (Feifer, 2007 : 105) unknowingly underpinned the manufacture of leadership. It is left to historical counterfactual-ism, though, to postulate the consequences of continued isolationist resistance to this. This article speculates that Japan would have unlikely industrialised to alter the balance of material power and, subsequently, the contest for leadership. The same counterfactual speculation applies to another case of ‘coercive underpinning’: the US occupation of Japan (1945-52). It initiated land reform, labour rights and dissolutions of the zaibatsu corporate conglomerates – establishing Japan’s leading economic competitiveness in the region (Passin, 1992 : 121). This trend continues to the present day.
Japan’s leadership apex: security, military, political dimensions
Up until losing the Second World War, Japan was the undisputed East Asian leader. It consolidated military power (Patalano, 2014 : 64-68) (Harrison, 1988 : 23-33), maintained economic activity (ibid. : 27) and – under its ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ – territorially expanded across and rendered subservient to Japan: Northeast Asia, East Asia, Indochina, Southeast Asia and Oceania (‘Draft of Basic Plan for Establishment of Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ : 1945). Here, we can say that Japan possessed at the traits and ability to be the only power to unilaterally change the status quo military, political and security landscape. Although an ‘Empire of Japan’ would not have arisen without the Meiji Restoration, the Empire best exemplifies the overall leadership that Japan once commanded. Furthermore, there are merits to analysing this period and this region through the prism of leadership, it ought to be noted that it also appeals to realist interpretations of world affairs.
There are two points to make:
Firstly, the identity of the US. As a result of becoming increasingly frustrated at Japanese belligerence and – after the Pearl Harbour attack (1941) – the US renounced Japan as an ally (United States Congress, 1941). This culminated in the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (1945). Although Japan exercised leadership during 1868-1945 in East Asia, the US showed how its decisive agency could – not only impose upon Japan the foundations for leadership – but also unilaterally revoke it. Consequently, the US manifestly becomes a distinctive East Asian actor in its own right because, when its interests finally diverged from Japan’s, so did its actions. Up until Japanese aggression, the US had little rationale to attack Japan. Nonetheless, when the US felt justified in atomically bombing Japan, it did so. An act as profound as this elevated the US into a status of East Asia’s deus ex machina: not only decisively influential, but also unique.
Secondly, historical perceptions ideationally hinder contemporary leadership. Memories of Japan’s wartime exploits reverberate in discourse today – especially during flares of nationalist sentiment in places previously invaded by Japan (The Economist, 2012). This disruption of peacetime violated the responsibilities of a benign East Asian leader. Even less forgivable, however, are Japanese war crimes and crimes against humanity: Korean sex slaves (Kim, 2014 : 83), the ‘Rape of Nanjing’ (Brook, 2001 : 673), and human experimentation (Keiichi, translated by Junkermann, 2004). For countries dominated and exploited during this historical period of tyranny under Japanese leadership, those issues remain – in their eyes – still unresolved today (Dickinson, 2007). (This is explained further, below.) As such, Japan has been unable to acquire a consensual mandate for East Asian security leadership.
Japan’s leadership, post-WW2: shaken, but preserved

Japanese economic leadership is retained
The war left swathes of the Japanese economy and social fabric in ruin (Harrison, op. cit. : 42). In becoming a developed, technological and high-wage economy that ranked second in the world (Yan, 2006 : 14) – Japan, during the 1950-60s, instituted macroeconomic policies embodying state-driven development capitalism (Johnson, 1996) (Vogel, 2006 : 21). It was the Ministry of International Trade and Industry that spearheaded industrial policy via close relations with and favourable lending to the smaller-than-before keiretsu conglomerates (ibid. : 8-9). Keiretsu, then, pursued a strategy of attaining market share instead of profit, ‘to shield themselves from foreign hostile takeovers’ (Schaede, 2006 : 15-17). Up until Japan voluntarily liberalised trade, the Foreign Exchange Allocation Policy was a de facto quota (Okazaki et al, 1999 : 311). This model’s execution pioneered East Asian divergences from the neoliberal Washington Consensus, which still advocates for deregulation, privatisation and liberalisation. It potentially harms emerging economies and their less competitive industries (Lee, 2008 : 512). Ultimately, Japan emerged from a weak position to economic and technological leadership: ushering domestic prosperity, ideationally redefining macroeconomic paradigms and practicably exporting respected, high-value technological goods that few else in East Asia could.
In comparison within the same decade, Maoist macroeconomic planning yielded alarming results and actively damaged credibility necessary for leadership. The collectivisation failures of the Great Leap Forward (1958-61) – which originally south to transform China from an agrarian economy to a socialist society – included the abolition of private property, unrealistic agricultural and industrial quotas and poor top-level economic decision-making (Gray, op. cit.). A notable feature were ‘backyard furnaces’ that were imposed in regular households with technical expertise (Tyler, 2012 : 98-99). Output was of poor quality, in comparison to factory-produced steel. Policies such as these precipitated near economic collapse, mass famine and death on the scale of tens of millions (Gray, op. cit. : 310-314). China’s Great Leap Forward was certainly a radical and highly symbolic spectacle; however it ultimately was not successful in achieving its objectives, much less being able to inspire a followership outside the international socialist movement. This is in contrast to state-driven development capitalism of Japan and the forthcoming ‘China Model’. In terms of the economic leadership dichotomy, Japan rose against China’s fall. China’s contribution to status quo East Asian ‘pool’ of macroeconomic management policies was poor, and this was recognised universally.
A change of guard: military leadership lies with China
However, Japanese leadership at this point had fundamentally changed since the context of the Co-Prosperity Sphere. It could only obtain economic or technological leadership – reclaiming cultural leadership at best. The 1947 Pacifist Constitution renounced sovereign rights of aggression (The Prime Minister of Japan and his Cabinet, 1947): disarming and disbanding standing armies, navies, air forces and any other entity with ‘war potential’, and only allowing domestic self-defence (ibid.). Additionally, the ‘Yoshida doctrine’ accepted the stationing of US military power in Japan, eschewed international realpolitik and emphasised economic development instead (Samuels, 2007 : 36 and 40). Consequently, Japan symbolically lacked something axiomatically vital to the status of an East Asian leader: decisive military leadership (requiring elements of hard power) to enforce political and security leadership (a position of being – now, in a post-Cold War order and out of all alternatives – the most trusted or respected power to lead action on political disputes or security threats). Without these, Japan was neutered: as non-candidate for positions as guarantor or of security or leader of regional political or military affairs.
Contrastingly, China detonated its first nuclear warhead in 1964 (Blasko, 2012 : 254), diversified and modernised the world’s largest standing army (Cooper III, 2007 : 77). In terms of the leadership dichotomy in military terms, we observe China’s rise to Japan’s relative fall. However, this article remains mindful of the notion that military leadership (an ability to, by hard power, coerce others) does not automatically confer security or political leadership – especially in a post-Cold War era. A constructivist lens suggests that China’s border wars with Russia, India and Vietnam did not inspire faith in itself as a guarantor of East Asian security (Liu, 2010 : 86-88). Under this lens, China is justifiably perceived by those East Asian neighbours as being more erratic, injudicious and self-interested.
Such an ideational perspective, though, lacks in Yan’s tripartite ‘state power structure’ analysis of ‘military’, ‘economic’ and ‘political’ (with wider connotations entailing security-related) factors – in which he claims that China is simply ‘strong’ in each (Yan, op. cit. : 21). His 2006 paper would therefore lack foresight in anticipating emerging perceptions of the ‘Chinese threat’ as an obstacle to accepting Chinese security and political leadership. Indeed, his analysis inadvertently showcases ‘power’ as a narrower concept than ‘leadership’.
To conclude, economic and technological leadership still thrived with Japanese resiliency, their drive to innovate and – as Krugman put it – ‘deferred gratification, the willingness to sacrifice current satisfaction for future gain’ (Krugman, 1994 : 78). There are no changes in this respect. This also suggests that peaceful economic and technological leadership possesses no prerequisites for values of trustworthiness, respect or moral integrity – which would be necessary of a political and security leader to whom regional order is entrusted. As recently as May 2015, The Economist contemporaneously noted:
The moral seems to be that China’s economic clout can win it commercial acquiescence, but that when it comes to arm-wrestling over matters of national security, America still has the muscle (The Economist, 2015b).
The principle, although directed towards China, still applied to Japan – who (as well as having no military) had no trustworthiness, respect or moral integrity to dictate regional political or security trends. Furthermore, in light of the above, any portrayal of China as a political or security leader should be treated cautiously. Consequently, neither can claim security or overall political leadership.
An aggregated assessment of leadership (involving all leadership types) suggests that neither China nor Japan – in any substantial way – rose or fell against the other. In other words, the gap between the two nations that was evident at the close of the colonial era remains throughout the Cold War and late 1900s. The dichotomous rivalry and the contest for leadership still exists, but it is in a transitory state of parity for this post-war period; larger and more noticeable changes occur later.

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