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"Several Chinese politicians say: 'there is no such thing as universal values"

Akio Takahara about the new directions in China's international relations

Januar 28, 2016

China’s assertive foreign policy in Asia is viewed with increasing concern in Japan. By sending patrol boats to the waters around the Senkaku/ Diaoyutai Islands in the South China Sea, China had created distrust in the entire region, said Akio Takahara, a Visiting Academic Fellow at MERICS. “Their soft words spoken on the diplomatic level are in sharp contrast to their sometimes tough actions,” he said, characterizing the behavior of China’s leaders. The professor for contemporary Chinese politics at Tokyo University spoke before an audience of 50 at a lunchtime talk on 28 January 2016.

After years of stable economic growth China is claiming a greater role on the global stage. According to Takahara, these ambitions go along with a refusal to respect the views of international partners. Nowadays, Chinese politicians would even state publicly that: “there is no such thing as common values”, he said. 

According to Takahara, the “power-based” approach is a result of the nationalist sentiment, which the Chinese government has fostered in the population for many years: “The government has taught the Chinese people that all those islands belong to them. Now that China has the capacity to act, people would point fingers at their politicians if nothing happened.” However, by antagonizing the neighboring countries the Chinese were “shooting themselves in the foot”, said Takahara, considering that China needs good trade relations in times of economic slowdown.

Takahara’s assessment of the initiative “One Belt, One Road” was equally pessimistic. Faced with difficulties in promoting a ‘new type of major country relations’ with the U.S., China had turned to Eurasia and launched the so-called Silk Road initiative. But according to Takahara, China’s huge investment in building a land bridge to the west will not pay. 

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Especially in Central Asia it would be difficult to implement profitable economic projects, he said. The euphoria over the initiative was abating even in China, Takahara said. “My very bold prediction is: in a few years from now, the concept of ‘One Belt, One Road’ will disintegrate.”

Relations between Japan and China remain complicated, said Takahara, who is regularly engaged in official dialogue channels between the two countries. Two near-miss incidents by military aircraft in 2014 had increased tensions, “something that worried both Abe and Xi”, he said, referring to the Japanese premier and the Chinese president. According to the scholar, there are two reasons for China’s recent efforts to improve the political atmosphere: despite recurring provocations in the South China Sea Beijing does not want military confrontation. 

Secondly, Beijing is increasingly worried about the huge decline in Japanese investment in China in the wake of the economic downturn. Yet, Takahara also cautioned that Xi, in a move to strengthen his position as a leader or to cover up domestic policy problems, could “play the nationalist card any time” and try to raise anti-Japanese sentiments in the population.

In the discussion following his talk, the expert expressed hope that the growing number of Chinese tourists in Japan will eventually help improve the relationship between the two countries: In 2014, five million Chinese visited Japan, twice as much as in the year before. “We want more to come, so they can see that what they hear about Japan at home is propaganda”, said Takahara. His conclusion on the ups and downs in the China-Japan relationship: “We cannot go on bickering with each other - it doesn’t help either side.”

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