Echoes Of Past: How US’s complaints about China today mirror those it had about Japan in the 1980s

The latest report by the US state department on China has taken a grave view of the communist state and its long-term goals. The report states that the Chinese Communist Party aims to revise the world order and place China at the centre of a new global architecture to further hegemonic ambitions. In response, the report stresses, the US should maintain the world’s most powerful military, fortify the open and rules-based international order, re-evaluate and strengthen its alliance system, educate the American public about the Chinese challenge, and constrain and deter the Chinese Communist Party.

Coming at the end of the outgoing Donald Trump administration, the report may not be sacrosanct for the incoming Joe Biden administration. But there are elements within the report that even Team Biden will concur with. For, there is a growing bipartisan understanding within the US establishment that China’s current aggressive trajectory needs to be countered. The only difference is in the details of how to do this. While Trump’s approach was erratic – he went from praising Xi to targeting Beijing over trade, intellectual property and Covid – Biden’s is likely to be more consistent, relying on the US alliance system in East Asia.

But what is interesting to note is that some of the arguments that the US is making today about China are very similar to those that it made against Japan in the 1980s. In Richard McGregor’s ‘Asia’s Reckoning: The Struggle For Global Dominance’, the author lays out how just a few decades ago it was Japan that was seen as the US’s main rival and competitor in East Asia. Buoyed by its meteoric economic growth and trade exports, it was Japan that was threatening to overwhelm the US. This was reflected in the constant trade tussles between Washington and Tokyo with the former pressuring the latter to reduce the bilateral trade deficit and open up its markets to American products. In fact, American trade officials believed that the Japanese were taking them for a ride, copying American technology, and subsidising critical industries to gain a strategic advantage.

But the American security establishment was initially wary of putting too much pressure on Japan given the latter’s strategic value in East Asia and American military bases in that country. However, it was the battle over semi-conductors that got American security and trade doyens on the same page. The semi-conductors were needed for American missiles, and American trade negotiators argued that allowing Japan to dominate this industry was detrimental to US security interests. This then brought to bear the entire might of the US government on Japan, resulting in one of the most controversial deals of the 1980s in which Tokyo agreed to give American firms a 20% share of its semi-conductor market.

This clearly has echoes of today’s trade war between the US and China over 5G technology. And in many respects, the US’s complaints about Japan’s economic and trade policies back then mirror its complaints about China today. Of course, there is one crucial difference. Japan, after being vanquished in the Second World War, became part of the US’s strategic security alliance. China in 1949, on the other hand, started the long journey to becoming the communist behemoth it is today. Plus, Beijing has closely followed and learnt from Washington’s push and pull tactics vis-à-vis Tokyo, and has vowed to resist such pressure on itself. Which means that even when the Biden administration officially takes office, it will have its task cut out to get China to change its current course. The only way it can succeed is if it works closely with its allies, junking the ‘America First’ concept. The tussle with China will be the US’s sternest test in the post-Cold War era.


DISCLAIMER : Views expressed above are the author’s own.


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