Japanese Perceptions of the Threat from China


Japanese publications have long recognized that China poses a threat to their country. Lately, the threat has appeared more serious and more urgent. In this article, I try to capture the mood in the winter of 2023-24 to grasp recent thinking on the nature of the threat. It is wide-ranging. The far right led by Sankei Shimbun and Bungei Shunju are hyping concern, but essentially that is thinking in the mainstream as well. The left is reacting somewhat cautiously, at times holding out idealistic ideas, but its voice is muted. In the mainstream, most indicative of leadership and policy community thinking is Yomiuri Shimbun as well as the foreign policy journal Toa. It is the mainstream viewpoint that this article seeks to convey, supplemented by the far right’s voice.

Absent is any optimism about diplomatic exchanges despite mention of China’s more positive tone since the spring of 2023. This is attributed to a desire to create an illusion of positivity for better economic ties when substantively China is adhering to hardline positions that matter. A pessimistic mood results also from the inability to find common language with the Chinese. Chinese sources distort the forces behind the geopolitical turmoil in the Indo-Pacific, insisting that Washington is the instigator, aggrieved because its global and regional hegemony are now challenged, and Japan is complicit, intent on renewing its regional primacy. Undermining peace, bent on containment and exploiting tensions, as in the South China Sea, they must yield, is the message, leaving no room for China to engage in give-and-take. The slight glimmer of hope, Chinese see, is asymmetry that offends US allies and partners, who fear entrapment.1 Yet, it is precisely Chinese refusal to acknowledge the key facts behind regional tensions that convinces Japanese to draw closer to the US since dialogue with China is now futile on strategic questions.

In at least four ways the perceived threat to Japan differs from that to the United States. The geopolitical danger is greater, economic interdependence operates differently, the historical context is distinctive, and national identity plays a strikingly different role. Japan has struggled more to cut a deal with China, while also becoming more unnerved about the lack of success. Japanese share the impression that their country is a special target of China for historical as well as geopolitical reasons. Revenge for past actions combine with ambitions to carve out a maritime sphere of control put Japan in the crosshairs. Although many focus on “wolf warrior” rhetoric targeted elsewhere, Japanese detect something akin in language long used to demean Japan’s right to be a “normal nation.” Indeed, a November 2023 book by Yasuda Minetoshi concentrated on Wolf Warrior China’s Actions toward Japan.2 It traced a pattern of Chinese disinformation blaming other states, such as the United States for causing the COVID pandemic, and now Japan for discharging dangerous radioactive water. Yasuda pointed to an extensive network of “wolf warrior” agents inside Japan, spying on Chinese students, targeting Japanese befuddled by past illusions about China as conveyed in the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, and eying the separation of Okinawa from Japan. While others stress Chinese upbeat words to keep economic ties from cratering, Yasuda warns of propaganda and intrusions inside Japan.

Chinese coercion over Taiwan would threaten to spiral into war involving Japan with possible loss not only of critical strategic space, but of parts or all of Okinawa. Chinese narratives read in Japan suggest the historical illegitimacy of its annexation of the Ryukyu state and vindication for Japan’s imperialist depredations over a half-century from 1895 to 1945. A dichotomy that Japan is required to revert to pacifist acquiescence to its neighborhood or it will be reviving militarism plays into the frightening narrative of what Chinese may see in store for a fully subdued Japan.

When 85-year-old Nikai Toshihiro became a central figure in the punitive handling of the LDP scandal in March 2024, he was forced to step down from reelection, but little was said about his role in relations with China during the Abe era and continued leadership of the Japan-China friendship parliamentary committee.3 It was as If the period of cozying up to China under Abe was best left unmentioned. Yet, his retirement puts a firm end to that era of wooing Xi Jinping. With Nikai out of the picture and Komeito’s Ikeda Daisaku dead, “pipes” to China were gone.

Sino-Japanese summitry in 2018 marked the 40th anniversary of the bilateral peace treaty. There were visits of LDP leader Nikai and Komeito leader Inoue to meet with top Chinese officials, aiming for Li Keqiang to come to Japan for the CJK summit and then for Abe and Xi to exchange top-level visits. After relations were strained in 2012-14 and gradually improved from 2015, Nikai’s visit (he had special rapport with China) in May and the visit of another Komeito figure (a party from the 1970s that stressed ties with China) in December 2017—both with letters from Abe and meetings with Xi—raised Japan’s hope, but China remained vague in responding clearly to such plans. Late in 2018 the situation changed, Abe visited Beijing in October, excluding multilateral summits the first visit of a Japanese prime minister since Noda went in 2011 before the Senkaku issue flared. Abe was upbeat, calling for a “new era” in bilateral relations and beckoning Xi to visit Japan in 2019. An aura of expectancy lasted to late 2020 as Abe left office still appealing for Xi to make a state visit. All trace of such upbeat diplomacy is gone; hopelessness has kept deepening in the early 2020s.

Ambassador Tarumi Hideo’s Insights into the Deterioration of Japan-China Relations

Behind the façade of bilateral summitry and invitations, the mood in Japan was darkening toward China. By 2020 many were openly hostile to Xi being hosted in a state visit. If some called for this visit to hedge against Donald Trump’s callous disregard of Japan and other US allies or to support a fragile Japanese economy, most had decided that China had changed, putting geopolitics above all else. Tarumi Hideo, Japanese ambassador to China for three years to December 2023, returned home with a tale of neglect in his post. He wrote of security trumping economics, making visa applications harder for Japanese business personnel even as Chinese local governments urged them to come and invest, and of little accessibility during most of his time representing Japan.4

In mid-February 2024 Tarumi Hideo was interviewed in Sankei (14th) and Mainichi (14th, 15th). He said that in responding to China’s arrest of a Japanese under a new anti-espionage law he thinks of his own family members. As for Taiwan, he warned of an economic blockade and the final option of unification by military force. Asked if Japanese companies should withdraw from China, Tarumi responded that only about 10 percent are planning new investment, emphasizing the diversity of Japanese enterprises, the vast market of 1.4 trillion persons, and the continuing presence of other countries’ firms. China isolated both the US and Japanese ambassadors from meeting high-level figures, but it changed in the summer of 2023 as preparations began for a Xi-Biden summit and US official visits to Beijing occurred. Wang Yi also signaled with a Komeito representative’s visit a possible shift after more than two years of slighting Japan post-Abe, exacerbated by China’s response to the Hiroshima G7. China could hardly avoid a summit with Kishida in San Francisco. Tarumi traced the Chinese appeal to boost relations to Wang’s spring messaging, whereas Japan responded that concrete issues needed to be resolved, including the Fukushima water release marine product ban. Despite its economic reasons to reboot relations, Chins put national security first, as in its 2023 “anti-spy law.” The arrest that fall of a prominent Japanese business leader had a large impact on the business community and bilateral relations.

Mainichi said that Tarumi was called by China the “Japanese diplomat of which it most needs to be wary.” even as he forged relations of trust with a broad segment of officials and common people. It was Yachi Shotaro in 2006 who got China to broaden relations to include “strategic” ties, which Japan had only used with the United States. Abe stressed ties to China, going beyond economics to politics. As security ties have grown bleaker, due to China’s behavior, the label “strategic” has endured, but with different meaning to Chinese and Japanese. On May 15 Tarumi, called a China expert, continued his interview with Mainichi, recalling Xi’s visit to Japan in 2009, when he traveled with Xi. As ambassador, however, he found Xi’s presence to be very distant.

Tarumi described the ferocious response to former prime minister Abe’s late 2021 statement that a “Taiwan contingency is a Japan contingency.” It threatened to deny all appointments with the ambassador over the statement by someone out of government, recognizing reality, argued Tarumi. Already Huanqiu Shibao had warned in 2008 when Tarumi became section chief for China and Mongolia that he was a spy. In 2010 with China’s export controls on rare earth minerals the line separating “politics cold, economics warm” was crossed. The downturn was compounded in 2012 with anti-Japanese behavior, but (following some reprieve from Nikai’s 2015 visit) after he returned to China in 2020 as ambassador the exchanges between Japanese officials and Chinese citizens had become harder, preventing many from attending for the emperor’s birthday. US embassy officials were treated similarly. In the fall of 2022, the working environment worsened further. A rare bright spot has been the surge of Chinese tourists to Japan, whose views improve, including some well-to-do people fearful of the Chinese Communist Party and buying property.5 

In Bungei Shunju, Tarumi Hideo reported on 3 steps in gathering information from China. After listing new efforts to analyze China abroad, including China House formed in 2022 in the State Department and German and British initiatives, he argued that Japan not only lags, at times it has gone against the current. China School seeks to rear and strengthen China specialists. He has over a 40-year career often prioritized gathering information on China over discussing the national interest. He complains about how new entrants to the foreign ministry did not study Chinese prior to entry despite their assignment and fritted away their college days, often not attending their class on realist foreign policy. They had little motivation to focus on Chinese when choosing it in the foreign ministry. In the government after the Tiananmen events of 1989 there was reliance on Ikeda Daisaku and others, who had built friendly ties to China, resisting the mounting criticism of China. In 1994-95, when China conducted underground nuclear tests, calls to suspend ODA were resisted by the Asia department, which was managing bilateral ties.

In 1995 when at the urging of the economics department a suspension occurred, the response was that regional departments manage bilateral ties. Japanese worked backchannels to gather information in China. If some in Japan harshly criticized the China school for being too hard on China, the opposite was true. Prior to China’s brief 2003 “new thinking” toward Japan, efforts to get Chinese officials to know Japan better had swelled. Afterwards, Japan’s officials struggled with the jigsaw puzzle of overcoming Chinese disinformation to gather material. Talk of “Japan-China friendship” was a mechanism for working Japan, even as unfriendly actions ensued, as in the ban on maritime imports from Japan now. As ambassador, he would not use the term. Yet, Japan is a neighbor of China, unlike the US, UK, and Germany. Even more, it needs experts who can earnestly gather information leading to a strategic China policy critical to Japan’s future.6

Taruma further reviewed the Japanese government’s handling of the Senkaku incursions by China, insisting that China’s explanation that Japan was responsible for changing the status quo by nationalizing the islands is incorrect. The dividing line occurred in 2008 from China’s actions, which were met weakly by Japan. Especially in 2010 when the LDP was out of power the prime ministers deferred to China, as revealed in the internal conversations which Taruma details.7

No matter how often the label “strategic, mutually beneficial relationship” is repeated, Tarumi found that it resolved nothing. He opined that in the second half of 2023 China was disinclined to hold a Japan-China summit, but after agreeing to a US-China summit in November, Japan took its place in line but without the surge of meetings in Beijing to which US ambassador Nic Burns was treated. If plans for a Xi state visit were under consideration to the spring of 2020, relations thereafter went into a tailspin. When Suga took office in September, China sent a message of continuity, but the spillover to a US ally from plunging Sino-US relations had an impact, as did Japan’s role as G7 chair in defending the existing international order and Kishida’s late 2023 national security strategy calling China the biggest security challenge beyond anything previously. In Chinese eyes, it was Japan that destroyed the framework of bilateral relations, as an accomplice of the US. It was essential to meet with Xi, since power is concentrated in his hands, and it is useless to meet anyone else. Abe grasped this, using cooperation on BRI to draw Xi’s interest. With personal ties, he thought that some issues could be addressed, such as arrests of Japanese citizens, as Xi would take into account the big picture of the bilateral relationship.

Tarumi in early November 2023 used independent authority given to ambassadors to lower the flag at the Japanese embassy in Beijing to half-mast in honor of the death of Li Keqiang, in contrast to the absence of such recognition a year earlier at the death of Jiang Zemin. A similar honor was given to Abe Shinzo and Queen Elizabeth. Li was recognized for furthering bilateral relations, now seen as at an impasse due to Xi Jinping’s focus on security as he sidelined his prime minister.8 Li’s death created an opening to bemoan the loss of his economic reform efforts in a country headed back to its Maoist roots.9 Tarumi countered vague wording about a “strategic, mutually beneficial” relationship with insistence on resolving separate concerns one-by-one.10

In response to Japan’s 2024 diplomatic bluebook reference to China threat to one-sidedly alter the status quo in the East and South China seas, the Chinese Foreign Ministry protested on April 16 about interference in China’s internal affairs. It invoked the guiding principle of “strategic, mutually beneficial relations” in calling for Japan to abide by the positive theme both sides had accepted earlier. In this thinking, it was Japan, not China, disrupting their positive agenda.11 In Yomiuri Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun inclusion of “strategic, mutually beneficial relations” in the blue book (restored following the Kishida-Xi summit after not being used for five years) drew notice, but Sankei qualified it by noting “many concerns” raised. This included efforts to change the status quo by force and more active military moves with Russia on Japan’s borders. Also mentioned was disinformation spread from China, some on Japan’s discharge of water.12

A persistent theme in recent months is retrospective coverage of perceived mistakes in China policy. For example, the decision to send the Emperor to China in 1992 is reviewed. Just after China declared its control over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, a half-year debate ensued on the decision to mark the 20th anniversary with a visit. While Kanemaru Shin opposed the visit, the ambassador to China Hashimoto Hiroshi pressed for it, responding to warnings from China not to pull back, and Prime Minister Miyazawa eventually made it happen in October 1992.13

Articles looked back to Japan’s weak response to China’s critical February 1992 law making the Senkakus (Diaoyudao) Chinese territory. Priority was put on ongoing plans for the Emperor’s visit later in the year. Optimism existed that China was heading in a favorable direction. Efforts to highlight the success of normalization on the 20th anniversary were building. The fact that it was not until the end of 2008 when Chinese ships started acting on the law allayed concerns. The visit of the Emperor was a symbolic event Japan was reluctant to tarnish, leading to a restrained approach. China sought the visit as a breakout from international sanctions and the pressure came from Japan’s foreign ministry to proceed. As public opinion in Japan had turned more favorable to the visit, the LDP leadership relented in August from its previous caution.

Japan’s ambassador to Australia Yamagami Shingo resigned in December 2023 after being subjected to attacks from Chinese diplomats. Kept from publicly responding by Japan’s foreign ministry, he responded in a February 2024 book on China’s “wolf warrior diplomacy.”14  The double whammy of Tarumi and Yamagami alerted Japanese to serious diplomatic troubles.

Causes of Japanese Wariness toward China

The US intelligence community, the Japanese business community, foreign policy observers, and Japanese public opinion converged behind the conviction that Japan had to be vigilant in the face of China’s aggressive behavior and Xi Jinping’s threatening agenda. By the winter of 2023-24 the wariness of all of these communities was reflected in media publications. Yomiuri, for example, reported on US wariness about intelligence sharing, given. the recent Chinese cyberattacks on the foreign ministry’s communications, although Japan had been rushing to upgrade its protections against secrecy leaks.15 The lack of readiness to deal with the growing threats from China and regrets about earlier naivete only made ongoing concerns greater.

The business community had long served as a bridge supporting keeping relations positive. Yet
no explanation was given for the October 2023 arrest of a Japanese pharmacy official in China, leaving this case to linger as a warning to Japanese business personnel working there that the anti-spy law passed that summer could be applied to them too. Investment fell as the view spread that Xi prioritized security over economics. At the same time, the intensified Sino-US confrontation saw supply chains moving out of China, including those of Japanese companies.

Many foreign commentators echoed Japanese alarm about China’s threat. Meanwhile, public opinion in Japan had consolidated behind a negative image of China. In January Yomiuri noted the latest falloff of friendly feelings toward China. In the Cabinet report of public opinion, 87 percent felt unfriendly, up 5 percent in a year and the highest figure recorded since the 1978 start of the poll. The Fukushima marine products boycott was cited as the latest affront. In contrast, the percentage feeling friendly to South Korea had risen 7 percent to 53 percent.16

In the fall of 2023 Japanese analysis assessed how well China’s foreign policy was doing with one state or region after another.17 Recognizing that internally China had changed drastically since the pandemic began, losing political and economic balance, the authors dismiss moves to improve ties to Japan and others as not really changing anything. Xi Jinping relies heavily on exclusive nationalism, and that is intensifying as a distraction amid deepening alienation. Over years of “politics cold, economics warm,” the risk to Japan kept growing until China’s behavior broke the paradigm, as in rare earth export restrictions and, most recently, a ban on marine products from Japan under the pretext of nuclear contamination. In 2022 Japan’s government finally reconsidered its national security strategy, facing the China challenge directly. Japan still must depend on China economically, but it also must explore new frontiers and reorganize its supply chains. Lately, Chinese voices have called for revising the San Francisco 1951 system in favor of the Cairo and Potsdam declarations, reconstructing the international order with China, a victor country, at the center. There is advocacy also for Okinawa’s independence. This was the outlook of an exchange among Anami Yusuke, Masuo Chisako, Naito Jiro, and Kawashima Shin.

Gaiko articles reflected on a world China was already transforming. The structure of the Sino-US confrontation—unchanged despite some renewed dialogue—was replacing multilateralism with minilateralism with exclusive memberships and de-risking or de-coupling. Hayashi Ryo said that in the face of China’s pursuit of leadership of the Global South, the G7 does not suffice. A multi-layered international framework is emerging on both sides, as on one side China joins with Russia and North Korea while advancing the BRI. Taiwan will test how Sino-Japanese ties proceed on opposite sides of this divide over the international order, readers can surmise. For Aoyama Romi, even while China’s diplomacy faces an impasse, its hard line is unchanging while it concentrates on reconstruction of the international order through the developing world, cooperating more closely with Russia despite some distrust. As Russia’s power declines, China worries about security in Central Asia, where states, similar to ASEAN, lean to a balance among powers, including Japan. Against this effort, China seeks to solidify security ties, utilizing the SCO and the C+C5 exclusive ties. China’s ties there are a microcosm of its global strategy: using organizations it leads and bilateral ties, and expanding its influence through such dimensions as infrastructure, economics, finances, personal and media exchanges, as well as closer ties to Russia. Opposed to the West, China has begun reconstruction of the Eurasian order. Another Gaiko article finds similarities in China’s grey zone tactics toward Taiwan and Japan.18 Fukuda Madoka wrote that dialogue between the two is now livelier and made lead to joint responses.  

One analysis concluded that despite the world’s ongoing wars in 2024 the greatest risk to the international order comes from Sino-US relations, including the impact of the political divide in Washington beneficial not only to Russia but also to China. Republicans in Congress are now jeopardizing US world leadership, and if the US is stymied in opposing Russia, the same thing could happen in the Indo-Pacific region. Given that they are further than Europe from the US, it is hard to conclude that the blood of Americans would flow for their defense. Trump may also make a deal with Xi Jinping sacrificing Taiwan, despite hardliners toward China on his staff.19 

The Impact of the Kishida-Xi Summit in November 2023

Yamaguchi Shinji focused on Chinese thinking at the November Sino-US summit.20 He saw no sign of progress on the two biggest issues of Taiwan and semiconductors, despite China saying that there is no plan for an armed invasion in 2027 or 2035, as some had argued. This effort to tone down such warnings and China threat thinking in various countries was seen as one aim of the summit. While US takeaways were the resumption of military communications and some stabilization of the competitive relationship, China tended to claim greater successes: to the business community, that the logic of peaceful coexistence had not changed, and coexistence is necessary. Chinese even trumpeted a “San Francisco vision.” China claimed to have won in gaining US respect, signaling recognition of each other’s sovereignty, security, and interests—a return to the point China had claimed had been reached in Bali a year earlier. The fact that this claim is at odds with reality only raises the possibility of a new confrontation, Yamaguchi said.

Following the San Francisco area Biden-Xi summit, Sahashi Ryo argued that the conflict over the Indo-Pacific system had not changed, and there is little concrete cooperation between the two states.21 Meanwhile, there are signs that a new Trump term would be more extreme “America First” than the prior term. At the same time, one must be watchful of the impact of a slowdown in China’s economy. As these factors loom, competition in the Global South is intensifying. In these circumstances, Japan must not only extend its alliance network with developing states, it must heighten its presence in the Global South in a multi-layered vision of global order. Sahashi appealed for a strategic vision to counter China’s growing influence in shaping the global order.

Aiming to build on the November Kishida-Xi summit, a Japanese business delegation went to China for the first time since 2019—a departure from the nearly annual delegations since 1975. Concerned about the security of those conducting business in China, the lack of renewal of visa-free short-term stays after the pandemic, and the water discharge boycott of marine products, the delegation found little concrete cooperation in China despite an unusually warm welcome, which was attributed to the economic slowdown and the intensified Sino-US confrontation.22 Chinese insistence that Chinese encounter the same problems in Japan of arrests for spying came with enthusiasm for accelerated contacts in the economic sphere, to which the Japanese agreed.


The Taiwan theme drew heightened attention around the time of the January 13 election of Lai Ching-te. China’s hostile response to the results only deepened concern of the possibility of a “Taiwan contingency.” As the first results in 2024, a period Japanese are calling the “year of elections,” the ominous possibilities of what will transpire were rarely far from the coverage.23

As Chinese battleships started encircling Taiwan, Japanese drew the conclusion that any conflict would endanger the Senkaku Islands too. Calls intensified to prepare for a contingency in which China would try to deny access to the United States and Japan would become embroiled as well.24
As China’s third aircraft carrier, Fujian, began trial runs at sea, Japanese noted its expected role in countering US involvement in a Taiwan scenario.25 The sense of danger only kept mounting.

By linking the Ukraine war to a “Taiwan contingency,” Japanese leaders made the threat of war on Japan’s doorsteps much more real. Alert to the proximity of the Senkaku Islands to Taiwan and the direct threat to Japan’s sovereignty, Japanese could not miss the severity of the warnings. A Chinese buoy in Japan’s EEZ became a test of defense of sovereignty for a second time in a year.26 Other threats to Japan were less by comparison, even if the South China Sea was linked.

China’s Threat in the South China Sea and Southeast Asia

A book covering the summits of November 2022 and the beginning of Xi Jinping’s third term conveyed a tone of alarm that China was swallowing Southeast Asia through its network of railroads and pipelines and demeaning Japan with its treatment of Kishida at a meeting with Xi. It depicted a railway project with three lines—east through Vietnam, west through Myanmar, and central through Thailand—encompassing most of ASEAN together with construction across Indonesia. While Biden had launched the US-ASEAN summit to counter China’s designs and also Japan was aware of China’s plans, they had to be careful due to ASEAN hesitation to act against China. At the ASEAN, G20, and APEC summits, Xi’s meetings followed a precise order that only relegated Japan to 15th place, no longer in Bali but in Bangkok. This snub put Japan after the Philippines and Singapore as well as the South Korea, whose prime minister took priority as representing a swing country China sought to attract. Bemoaning Xi’s leading role at summits while Japan lacks a strategy, Edo Homare warned that Japan was in danger of repeating the failure of 1989 when it broke the economic blockade of China, enabling its dangerous rise.27

Hamamoto Ryuichi contrasted China’s recent approaches to the Philippines and Vietnam.28 In the former case, a hardline approach is pressing for a change in the territorial status quo. In the latter one, a diplomatic upsurge, including Xi Jinping’s two-day visit in mid-December, has tried to counter Vietnam’s growing closeness to Japan and the United States. As Vietnam pursues balanced diplomacy, China proposes closer ties as part of a “community of shared destiny.” As Vietnam strives to save China’s face, China argues that the South China Sea territorial dispute is no more than one part of the overall relationship, which should be built on mutual trust and respect. Biden visited Vietnam in September, and Vietnam’s leader went to Japan at the end of November, when more military equipment was promised. As the maritime situation has grown more dangerous, Vietnam has drawn closer to the United States and Australia. Meanwhile, the Japan-China relationship has entered an extremely perilous period, as Xi and his advisors lack any understanding of a process for restoring relations. Mention was made of the treatment of an arrested Japanese businessman and the unprecedented number of ships near the Senkakus.

Tokyo Shimbun editorialized on China retracting the “rule of law” in its maritime advance.29 It called for international society jointly to do more to contain this, noting the trilateral summit of Japan-the US- and the Philippines agreeing on countermeasures on April 11. It called for talks on a South China Sea code of conduct, pointing to China’s harassment of a Philippine vessel in its own EEZ and to the four-nation maritime exercises involving Australia too, along with past differences within ASEAN on a framework for preventing accidental conflict in the sea. China’s conduct had driven President Marcos to break with the pro-China policy of his predecessor, and in 2023 when Kishida had met Marcos, they agreed on closer security ties, including the US.

Xi Jinping’s Authoritarianism and Ambitions

In summaries of the results of Yomiuri’s annual international conference on November 30 left no ambiguity about Xi Jinping’s ambitions fueled by increased national power. China sought to forge its own international order, and Japan was no longer using the phrase Abe had accepted of “strategic, mutually beneficial relations,” deciding that this did not represent Xi’s thinking.30 On December 26, on Mao Zedong’s birthday, Xi Jinping’s ardent support for his hero was on fulldisplay. Xi paid tribute at Mao’s mausoleum and linked strengthening his own authority to learning from the great patriot. This was seen as aimed at distracting young people from severe problems of today.31 For Japanese readers it further sullied Xi’s image as Mao’s successor.32

Chinese cyberattacks and arrests of Japanese businessmen frequently appeared in the news. In one case, after US warnings that Japan needed to better protect its government systems, the Foreign Ministry phones were breached.33 Disagreeing with Chinese excuses that a drop-off in exchange students coming to China reflected the fact that foreign companies were hiring fewer people, Japanese pointed to the impact of the “anti-spy law,” noting the US and ROK figures.

China’s Economic Prospects

Emboldening Japan was the realization that China’s economy was slowing and its demographic decline accelerating after population losses in 2022 and 2023. Slow to correct its single-child policy, China had worsened its own plight. The marriage rate had halved from its peak in 2013, and aging was occurring at a faster rate than in Japan. A Yomiuri editorial warned of social unrest as Xi’s military expansion and public surveillance hardline policies continue.34

The “Japanification” of China’s economy poses a risk of urgent interest in Tokyo. Inflation, an employment freeze, and a property bubble all are facing China, as was true in Japan.35 There is a high possibility that China will sink into “30 lost years” in the face of deflation, some Japanese are warning, pointing also to population decline parallel to Japan’s. Excessive investment after the global financial crisis of 2008 without structural reform has put China on a negative course, along with tightening rather than loosening state controls. Compounding the problem are the controls placed on high-tech exports as Sino-US relations have worsened. Such dire prognoses do not necessarily come with warnings of China lashing out abroad, but they are often related.

China’s promise to participate in the 2025 Osaka world expo, constructing the largest foreign pavilion, gave a needed boost to a high-priority Japanese project off to a slow start with only three states of 55 beginning construction as of February 2024. This was interpreted as a way to boost China’s image for economic reasons and a down-payment for success in a prospective 2035 Chinese exhibition in Shenzhen and Hong Kong.36

If Japan’s standing in the world GDP ranks is dropping as China readies to overtake the US, is it time to bow to reality, some may ask. Deflecting such fatalism, much appears on the economic troubles besetting China and lying ahead, and some make a different case for Japan. Tanaka Akihiko wrote that despite Japan’s fall to fourth after Germany in GDP with India poised to leap ahead, this has to do with the sharp decline in the value of the yen and does not signify that Germany with its economic troubles is ahead. Also, when Japan was the second economic power, it lacked international influence and, for a time, in parts of Asia faced wariness from the war. In the Persian Gulf War, its funds were not well appreciated. In wartime consciousness in international society is fundamentally changing. Does that mean the ability to wage war gives a state more influence? Clearly, GDP alone is not a measure of a state’s international stature.37

A half year after China imposed its boycott on Japanese marine products, it was clear that other exports were affected too. Unease over “made in Japan” was spreading. As for the discharge issue, Chinese ships had continued to fish in Japan’s EEZ, selling their product as “Chinese.” At sushi restaurants, most operated by Chinese, not only the fish but the rice and soy sauce were no longer exported from Japan. Roughly 80,000 Japanese eating establishments operate in China, and business is depressed. Japanese cosmetics, which use a lot of water, have suffered.38

Wang Yi’s speech at the National People’s Congress stressing the self-harm inflicted on the US and others from export controls on semi-conductors drew interest in part from the fact he said that China’s cooperation with Japan and South Korea was deepening, but he did not take any questions from Japanese media and, in a departure, made no mention of Sino-Japanese ties.39

Finding little new in China’s policy to counter economic problems, particularly the real estate crisis, weighing down consumption because so much of personal savings is involved, Japanese saw the planned boost to military spending of 7.2% (to 4.4 times Japan’s defense budget) as proof China had prioritized a course to unite with Taiwan and expand control over the south China Sea by blocking US interference. Economics was secondary to military ambitions.40

Yoshino Fumio warned Southeast Asian countries that they faced the middle-income trap with worsening effects from their growing dependence on China, as that country’s real estate crisis threatens to reverberate abroad. China’s economic situation is similar to Japan’s in the 1990s, but it is more dire due to demographic impact of the declining working age population. Some Chinese projects, such as Forest City in Malaysia, have faced a loss of Chinese capital, and the states of Southeast Asia are not able to shift quickly to a self-reliant economic pathway or, with the exception of Singapore, to skip industrialization in favor of digitalization. The large number of overseas Chinese in the region is seen as a problem in making the needed transition.41

On March 11 Foreign Minister Kamikawa spoke to a gathering in Tokyo of Japanese embassies about the threat of Chinese economic pressure with the goal of promotting closer coordination between government and businesses. She warned of economic dependence serving as a weapon for political goals. To counter this more evidence must be gathered, she argued.42

The Russia Factor and China

Japanese observers follow China’s position on Russia’s war in Ukraine closely. The mainstream view is that despite its protestations of a neutral or balanced position and some caution not to run afoul of US threats of secondary sanctions China is bent on shoring up the Russian economy through energy purchases above all and seeks an outcome advantageous to Russia and not to NATO and US alliances. Even as some see room for more dialogue with China by the US, the EU, and Japan since Beijing and Moscow are not fully aligned,43 they must contend with widespread concern that Beijing is more concerned that Russia not wind up weakened than anything else.

As Biden on the 2nd anniversary of Russia’s full-scale assault announced expanded sanctions on Russia, widening to Iran and China, in line with new steps by the EU and Great Britain, affecting Arctic LNG2 in which a Japanese company had invested, there was no reason think that this was not in keeping with Japan’s views.44 Japanese worried about signs of US wavering on Ukraine, while broadly endorsing efforts to extend pressure to China over its support for expansionism.

The death of Alexander Navalny, as the latest Putin opponent to be eliminated, reminded some of the similarity between Russia and China in disposing of those treated as enemies. Liu Xiaobo, the 2010 Nobel Prize winner, who died in prison and whose memory was suppressed over the Internet, was similarly recalled as a fighter for human rights who came to an untimely end.45

In mid-February Japanese paid close attention to Trump’s comments that if Russia attacked NATO allies whose defense budgets fall below his standard the US would not defend them in his anticipated administration. Would that apply to Japan? One commentator argued that Abe was the only statesman who could keep together the G7. Without him now, great damage could be inflicted on the West. He guided Trump to strengthening the Japan-US alliance at a time of transition in policies toward China and North Korea, first by praising him. Without Abe it is not yet clear what should be done was the message left with Japanese wary about Trump.46


Japanese malaise was on full display as 2024 was beginning. Former ambassadors recounted how Japan was being disrespected by China, archival releases fueled recollections of decisions that exposed Japan’s lack of will to resist China’s assertive behavior, and ongoing developments raised consciousness of military, economic, and national identity threats. Limited outreach from Beijing feigning a return to normalcy in bilateral relations was met with unrealized demands for concrete action to deal with actual problems such as the costly boycott of all Japanese marine products or the chilling arrest of a Japanese pharmaceutical executive under the new, anti-spy law. There was no trace of the optimism over ties to China as recently as 2020 in plans for Xi to make a state visit, eying China’s response to Russian aggression and North Korean belligerence.

Japanese found many occasions to sharpen their negative images of China. Li Keqiang’s death reminded them of the path not taken when Xi Jinping sidelined his prime minister and strove for more complete one-man dictatorship. The anniversary of Mao Zedong’s death reaffirmed comparisons of Xi to Mao, eclipsing memories of the reform and opening Deng had launched. The suspicious death of Alexei Navalny in prison elicited comparisons to Liu Xiaobo’s prison demise in China. But, above all, Russia’s war in Ukraine reverberated in alarm about China’s intentions toward Taiwan, kindling awareness of an age of war replacing the postwar peace.

1. Global Times, March 25, 2024.

2. Yasuda Minetoshi, Senro Chugoku no tainichi kosaku (Tokyo: Bunshun shincho, 2023).

3. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 26, 2024, p. 3.

4. See interviews with Tarumi Hideo in Mainichi Shimbun and Sankei Shimbun on February 14-15, 2024.

5. Tarumi Hideo, “Ju Chugoku taishi kaku tatakaeri,” Bungei Shunju, No. 2, 2024, pp. 112-27.

6. Tarumi Hideo, “Chugoku de no 3 step joho shushutsu,” Bungei Shunju, No. 3, 2024, pp. 164-73.

7. Tarumi Hideo, “Senkaku shoto no tameni senryakuteki gashin shotan o,” Bungei Shunju, No. 4, 2024, pp. 148-59.

8. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 28, 2024, p. 7.

9. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 9, 2024, p. 9.

10. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 29, 2023, p. 7.

11. Terebi Asahi, April 17, 2024.

12. Yomiuri Shimbun, April 17, 2024; Sankei Shimbun, April 17, 2024.

13. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 21, 2023, p. 2.

14. Sankei Shimbun, February 15, 2024.

15. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 2024.

16. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 20, 2024.

17. See the collection of articles, “Chugoku to no kyori o hakaru sekai,” Gaiko, September/October 2023.

18. Ibid.

19. Watanabe Tsuneo, “Kotoshi mo Beichu kankei ga kokusai chitsujo no saidai risuku yoin,” Toa, No. 1, 2024, p. 1.

20. Yamaguchi Shinji, “Beichu shuno kaidan ni okeru Chugoku ninshiki,” Toa, No. 1, 2024, pp. 18-25.

21. Sahashi Ryo, “Chugoku ni mukaiau Indo-Taiheiyo shisutemu,” Toa, No. 1, 2024, pp. 10-17.

22. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 24, 2024, p. 9, January 26, 2024, p. 9; January 29, 2024, p. 10.

23. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 25, 2024.

24. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 29, 2024, p. 1.

25. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 23, 2024, p. 7.

26. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 18, 2024, p. 3.

27. Edo Homare, Xi Jinping sankime no nerai to shin China-seven (Tokyo: PHP shincho, 2022).

28. Hamamoto Ryuichi, “Chugoku ga Filipin to Betonamu ni konan sabetsu taio,” Toa, No. 1, 2024, pp. 26-35.

29. Tokyo Shimbun, April 17, 2024.

30. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 7, 2023, p. 13.

31. Yomiuri Shimbun, December 27, 2023, p. 7.

32. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2024, p. 7.

33. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 5, 2024, p. 1

34. Yomiuri Shimbun, January 29, 2024, p. 3.

35. Nogimori Minoru, “Chugoku Keizai no ‘Nihonka’ to takamaru choki teizai no risuku,” Toa, No. 11, 2023, pp. 46-47.

36. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 4, 2024, p. 4.

37. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 26, 2024, p. 1.

38. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 25, 2024, p. 3.

39. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 8, 2024, p. 7.

40. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 6, 2024, p. 3.

41. Yoshino Fumio, “Chugoku izon takameru Tonan Ajia,” Toa, No. 4, 2024, p. 1.

42. Yomiuri Shimbun, March 11, 2024, p. 2.

43. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 24, 2024, p. 9.

44. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 25, 2024, p. 7.

45. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 18, 2024, p. 9.

46. Yomiuri Shimbun, February 14, 2024, p. 7, February 15, 2024, p. 6.

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