That the 'sun rises in the east' and Japan being the 'land of the rising sun' remain such common clichés that we often think of them being givens. For Japan that continues to be the case, emphatically so after its latest election; but by reaffirming Xi Jinping's presidency, China's October 2017 Communist Party Congress clearly depicted China rising as another eastern sun.
To be sure, China will not be completely subordinating Japan, at least anytime soon, or so automatically: Japan has many safeguards, not the least of which is an agreement with the United States. Flirting with a recessionary economy since 1990, Japan may also have gotten its own post-World War II mojo restored, at least briefly, by Shinz? Abe's election victory. He launched his political return with 'Abenomics' during 2012, but instead of reforming the country's ailing industries, he has struggled economically. The firmer mandate he wanted in the October 2017 snap election was simply to retry reforming Japan's ailing economy before it is too late. As the average Japanese age climbs and a demographic ghost stares blankly at the country's rusting infrastructures, Japan is being forced by a far more competitive global setting than ever since World War II to swallow the full neo-liberal pill. Unlike his predecessors, Abe is ready for the challenge. The 2017 election result, however, differs from 2012 and 2014 in that he wants to land an extra punch: he wants the constitution's Article 9, which permits offensive military action abroad, as an economic reform instrument. Ostensibly made more urgent by North Korea's adventurist military actions targeting Japan (and perhaps the single issue explaining the extra mandate Abe won), this constitutional change would make today's democratic Japan resemble pre-World War II imperial Japan in some ways. Adolf Hitler's 1936 Rhineland militarisation, which disregarded the Treaty of Versailles prohibition, comes to mind.
If that is a harsh comparison for a far more well-intentioned Abe and Japan today, the former 'land of the rising sun' is on a slippery slope anyway: unintended actions easily open the door to undesirable outcomes. With many uncontrollable forces at play, Japan faces not just the demographic, economic, and North Korean threats, each one outside Japan's control, but also Chinese. China was Japan's pre-World War II Achilles Heel, and half the world still wary and obstructionist about Japan's return to a military power may find China's armament less begrudging. Japan's return to great-power ranks may be catalysed by East Asian sparks.
Developments on mainland China could be a starter. Ever since President Donald J. Trump's inauguration and Jinping's World Economic Forum address advocating a vanishing free-trade policy-approach in January 2017, China has explicitly and expeditiously acquired many global leadership wherewithal: supplying a variety of collective goods, like imports and investments, to African, Asian, and Latin American countries to neutralise their US shift; probing deeper into the fulcrum of the Cold War US alliance system, using countries like Iran, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia, to counter US deals; and cementing ties with Russia to bolster its strength against any US collisions, as Russia.
Fine time this, too, for Jinping's accomplishments to be reaffirmed and rejuvenated by the Communist Party Congress. Revitalising the weak component on that leadership equation was just what the doctor ordered: since no world leader ever became a leader without its own unique ideational framework, China has painstakingly built one. Great Britain boasted free-trade, demonstrated naval preeminence built upon the 'rule Britannica' myth, and supplied much needed portfolio investment for the rest of the industrialising world's infrastructure development, especially railroads; the United States bettered these with multilateral trade, foreign direct investment, and democracy. China can lubricate communism with liberalism and neo-liberalism from the Atlantic order, thus elevating an indigenous touch, in other words, putting peasant communism into modern post-capitalist clothes.
We expect movements along several fronts: indigenising assembly-line production and shifting from a low-wage to automated working force; tightening the noose of all debt-receiving countries; bribing economically struggling western competitors into the Chinese system; and keeping the reins of almost all globally-relevant policy options, such as dispensing economic aid (through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), climate change leadership (a cause metropolitan-polluted China just became a banner-waving advocate of), foreign investment (through its own 'one-belt-one-road', or OBOR, network), and so forth, all under Chinese control. Here is where the long, persevering, and enormously expensive infrastructural investments in infrastructural factories, ports, and the like through the OBOR network that Jinping laboriously built up, will reap awe-inspiring rewards, loudly at that. Even more will we find agreements and treaties abroad with a sine qua non clause that enhances Chinese power. Militarily, this may be why the stubborn construction of a South China Sea island and opening of a maiden foreign naval base, in Djibouti; and economically, the corridors being built around another likely future rival, India, from Myanmar to Pakistan, with Bangladesh, Bhutan, Nepal, and Sri Lanka along the periphery conveying the same stranglehold picture.
Japan's worry is not new. We have seen how, outside the military domain, Japan is also trying to match China's external offers with its own, and when possible, to go as far within the military domain as Article 9 of the Constitution allows. The Quadrilateral Security Dialogue exemplifies the latter, and its many economic deals, as with Bangladesh and India during Abe's 2014 visits, depicting the former.
North Korea remains the unwitting red-herring of any confrontation. Not only the missiles that irks even Chinese leaders, but over which China cannot do much; but also the China's hinged economy with North Korea that is officially denied. Japan, for obvious reasons (to legitimise its return to a military option), will not let a North Korea assault go unnoticed, and thereby finds itself implicitly confronting the Chinese military might. China has single-mindedly built its economic and military arsenal, come what may; Japan either could not, owing to a lack of desire and the constitutional constraint, or would not, since no prime minister boldly strode up to the occasion.
Much like Europe in the 19th Century, Asia now has its internally-induced balance-of-power game unfolding. Much like the 20th Century superpowers, the Soviet Union and the United States, were ineluctably drawn into a Cold War in spite of wartime collaboration, China and Japan may have enough commercial relations to not notice how they might also ineluctably drift into conflict. An old Chinese curse of how we live in interesting times may be most appropriate today.
Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the newly-built Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.