One of Japan’s top academics says China is trying to create its own new world order — and leading Western democracies, Canada included, have started to look at their relationship with the rising superpower through that lens.
For the last several years, Junya Nishino’s research has been focused on his country’s relationship with South and North Korea. North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s outbursts gave him plenty to work on.
But it has been hard for the demure, precise professor of political science to ignore an increasingly assertive Beijing, its provocative actions and the amount of time and political energy being expended by Japan’s leaders on the China relationship.
While acknowledging China is an “indispensable” economic power for his country and Western nations, Nishino said the policy of engagement based solely on trade and business interests has failed.
A ‘very different’ regime
“We have to keep in mind that China is a very different regime,” he told CBC News in a recent interview. “China is not a democratic country. China is an authoritarian system. So we always need to pay close attention.”
Since the 1990s, Western countries — with Canada in the vanguard — have pursued a policy of helping Beijing build up an affluent middle class through liberalized trade and investment, in the long-term hope that it would lead to a more democratic country.
Over the last several years, however, it has become apparent, in a variety of ways, that the Chinese leadership has no interest in moving in that direction.
China’s President Xi Jinping, with the full support of his party, rewrote the country’s constitution in March 2018 and scrapped term limits, essentially allowing him to stay in office for life.
The surprise move came as Beijing pressed claims over the South China Sea, built up its military and launched a global infrastructure plan known as the Belt and Road Initiative.
The country also drastically enhanced domestic security and enforced ideological purity standards in schools and the media.
At the same conference that extended his grip on power, Xi told Chinese lawmakers and political advisers that his country’s brand of authoritarian capitalism is a “new type of political party system” that would benefit the rest of the world.
“From the Japanese perspective, clearly, China is trying to create its own new order, not only in East Asia, but the world,” said Nishino.
A year ago, writing in the Qiushi Journal, the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) main theoretical magazine, Xi insisted that his country “must never copy the models or practices of other countries.”
Western-style separation of powers — the bedrock of democratic institutions — held no appeal for China, Xi wrote, arguing that the party must remain supreme.
“We must never follow the path of Western ‘constitutionalism,’ ‘separation of powers’ or ‘judicial independence,”’ Xi wrote.
Those sentiments made Nishino and other China-watchers sit up and take notice.
The West grows wary
“We and China have very different values and we need to keep this in mind,” said Nishino, who has been speaking Canadian officials and audiences over the past week.
After an initial flurry of interest among Europeans in the Belt and Road Initiative, he said, there now seems to be a wariness among Western countries — and they’d do well to avoid the plan.
During President Barack Obama’s second term, the U.S. recognized that China had changed and began to take a harder line. Such an approach is more difficult for Japan to take because of geography.
Relations between Tokyo and Beijing run hot and cold, thanks in large part to tension over eight uninhabited islands — little more than hunks of rock — in the East China Sea.
Both countries lay claim to the islands, which are known as the Diaoyu islands in China and as the Senkaku islands in Japan.
But China remains Japan’s most important trading and economic partner and the business communities in both countries have tried to keep a positive and constructive relationship going.
The challenge of keeping that constructive relationship alive is more intense in Japan than it is in Canada, but the problems facing both countries are not dissimilar. China is deeply embedded in the supply chains of Western democracies.
And there lies the problem shared by Canada and Japan, Nishino said. Japan has been trying to strike a balance between a tough security policy and a healthy trading relationship. The Trump administration can afford to be bellicose and fight a trade war with China. Canada and Japan cannot.
Japan has been working hard to find a way to “co-exist” with China without being pushed around, Nishino said.
What’s left unanswered — especially in light of Beijing’s hostage diplomacy over Canada’s detention and possible extradition of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou — is how difficult co-existence will be going forward.