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Japan-China Battles for Hearts & Minds, with Giulio Pugliese

August 7, 2018

Anti-China protest in Roppongi, Tokyo, 2010. CREDIT: Jacob Ehnmark (CC)

Podcast music: Blindhead and Mick Lexington.

DEVIN STEWART: Hi, I'm Devin Stewart here at Carnegie Council in New York City, and today I'm speaking with Giulio Pugliese. He's a lecturer in war studies at King's College, London, and he's currently conducting research as a visiting scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. He looks at Japan-China relations. This is part of our ongoing series on Information Warfare.

Giulio, great to speak with you today.

GIULIO PUGLIESE: Thanks for having me, Devin.

DEVIN STEWART: Generally speaking, how do you see Japan-China relations today? I think you’ve called it a "tactical détente." What does that mean?

GIULIO PUGLIESE: Right. Basically, I look at Japan-China relations from a broad structural picture, meaning typical neorealist, structural realist picture of China reemerging to regional centrality, the United States being in relative decline, and China pushing the envelope because it sees a space. Japan, on the contrary, feels more threatened by China’s advancement into the seas and balances China's rise.

Basically, I zoom in and understand the very forceful and impactful, most probably impactful, leaderships in China and Japan in the post-Cold War era, nominally Xi Jinping and Abe Shinzō’s leadership, which are ongoing and which will last for a long time, as having a particular importance in terms of foreign policy outputs because both leaderships are nationalistic. Both leaders reason in terms of power politics, and they have engaged—especially China, but you could say with a crescendo Japan—the counterpart with a growing realism. They have been playing by the power politics book, not just in the military-security domain but also in the economic and, interestingly enough for your podcast, in the informational domain. This is a fascinating development in Sino-Japanese relations.

I haven’t seen substantial concessions on either side since 2012, when Japanese nationalized three islands and China tried to push the envelope in the East China Sea and militarized the South China Sea, and Japan tried to respond to that.

What we are seeing is a degree of compromises that are also facilitated by the Trump administration. I see China in the driver's seat of this "charm offensive" that tries to demand ties not just with Japan but with other important neighbors such as India, and the Wuhan summit between Modi and Xi Jinping is symptomatic of that.

But I also understand Japan, in as likely less a way, as hedging against the Trump unknowns by making a tactical détente with China that will lead essentially to summit diplomacy and handshakes and lofty principles on both sides, but the structural problems between Japan and China in terms of China wanting to regain its original centrality and Japan viewing that with suspicion and with anxiety, especially under the Abe administration, these constraints, these factors will remain. That's why I don't see a real accommodation on either side.

DEVIN STEWART: Given the détente between China and Japan, what does that mean for the information warfare or the game of playing with perception or even soft power between China and Japan?

GIULIO PUGLIESE: That’s a very interesting question. It has ramifications on both the domestic and external spheres.

I will start with what is most commonly analyzed, which is the Japan-China information battle for foreign hearts and minds. I think that Japan is still insisting on denouncing Chinese activities in the East and South China Sea. The strategic narratives of denouncing Chinese salami-slicing activities and "gray zone" tactics, not least the sometimes very indirect criticism of China as not being faithful to the rule of law, of not being compliant to universal values, those kinds of narratives are still there in Japan's case. I was told yesterday by a Ministry of Foreign Affairs official that Japan has insisted on denouncing Chinese salami-slicing tactics and its hybrid warfare, what more often than not here is called "gray zone" tactics, as part of Japan’s strategic narrative.

So there has been a push from the top down, meaning from the prime minister's office through Japan's governmental agencies to insist on this discourse for foreign consumption. That will probably stay, not least because there is also substantial truth to those claims.

China, on the contrary, is trying to make amends with Japan and has toned down its domestic discourse. But the issue here is that Abe will want still to amend the constitution, and China views that with suspicion. China's dream is the doppelgänger of the China nightmare, which is the brutal invasion of China at the hands of the Japanese, so the central remediation which has seen Japan as the most evident victimizer of China. This goes hand-in-hand with the China dream. This is what I call the China "nightmare." To a certain extent, Xi Jinping will need to cater to the China nightmare for foreign consumption and internal consumption as he pushes for the China dream.

One clear example of this is the Nanking Massacre, which has been memorialized on December 13. Xi Jinping has attended the ceremony without making a speech on December 13. It wouldn’t surprise me if Chinese organizations in Canada that are pushing for memorializing the Nanking Massacre in Canada, both at the local and the national levels, do get some support from the Chinese government. Since this is very sensible, and I am not in the business of knowing sensible stuff, this is just a possibility.

Clearly, China has an interest in sidelining Japan as an unrepentant country that hasn't atoned for its past "brutal"—and this is an important adjective, what we need to remember about Japan's imperial experience—aggression toward its neighbors. This will probably remain because again there is a structural need in China to remember that past to its fellow citizens and to the world because the China dream and the China nightmare are like Taoist yin and yang, so it's a holistic concept. They go together.

Many view with suspicion the Abe administration. This is also a structural factor because Abe himself and many of his sympathizers in his group are historical revisionists. Abe has been pragmatic, but his sympathies are clearly on the nationalistic, historical revisionistic side of the Japanese political world. This will keep on feeding the suspicions within the Chinese political apparatus and public opinion and will feed into narratives about an unrepentant militaristic Japan.

In fact, there are funny catchphrases about Abe's militaristic dream. I’m quoting Chinese-language propaganda, which is symptomatic in a sense of Abe being Xi Jinping's doppelgänger, if you want.

DEVIN STEWART: How do you describe and assess the messaging from China to the world and from Japan to the world? What’s the main message that each country wants to convey about itself to the world, and how effective is that?

GIULIO PUGLIESE: Interestingly enough, and this is probably all true of wartime and prewar propaganda, both countries actually share important similarities in terms of the content of their narratives. Both have presented themselves as peaceful states that have been confronted with an aggressive counterpart.

Interestingly enough, and some of your listeners might be surprised, both Japan and China have presented themselves as status quo partners and faithful upholders of the international order confronted with a revisionist counterpart. We probably would sympathize with Japan's part of the story because Japan has been an anti-militarist country that has been confronted by coercion on the other side of the East China Sea.

But what is interesting is that China understands Japan's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands with some foundation because there is some foundation to Chinese claims. But Japan has acted as a revisionist power. Japan, especially under Abe, has tried to challenge the postwar order built from the ashes of the world anti-fascist war. This is very dangerous because when these two discourses on both sides run in parallel lines, if the public opinion of both countries start to believe in these narratives, then we are facing dangers of collision.

What is interesting to say is that foreign audiences and the attempts by both governments to sell these narratives to foreign audiences are also meant for internal consumption. So when you ask about the effectiveness of these discourses, we also have to factor in that when China tries to make these publicity stunts and tries to basically score points by calling Abe the "Voldemort of East Asia," as they did in 2014, they are also speaking to their domestic audiences.

When you look at the 2014 debate between the Chinese and Japanese ambassadors in the United Kingdom, calling each other's countries names—the counterpart's government was the Voldemort, the evil wizard of Harry Potter, in East Asia. If you look at the video of the Newsnight debate, most of the videos on YouTube are actually for Chinese consumption. They are translated into Chinese, and they are there to demonstrate that China won against Japan. This is fascinating because it's what you would least expect out of public diplomacy. This reinforces in a sense the self-entitlement, the self-righteousness of each country because Japan also has this echo chamber that it has developed in terms of public diplomacy also aimed at domestic audiences.

So when you ask about effectiveness, I would say that in general people don't really care about these faraway islands in Western Europe and in the United States, but since Japan's behavior has coincided more or less—not always—with its words and with its information activities it has more credibility, especially when Japan depicts itself as a status quo, peaceful country. In that case, I see Japan winning the information war because it has more credibility.

As we all know, truth will stand. In the short term, the Chinese efforts might be actually quite effective, but long term we realize that clearly actions matter, and Japan has been a much more credible actor relative to China, not least because Abe has restrained—also through some arm-twisting on the American side—his nationalistic colors. Especially since 2015 Abe has presented himself as a more pragmatic leader with visits to Pearl Harbor, with a compromise deal on the comfort women with South Korea, and not visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

These actions neutralize and defuse China's talking points and at the same time have the merit of matching Japan's information efforts with concrete actions from its leadership. So I would say that internationally Japan has stronger credibility and has been able to sell itself better.

Domestically, I think China's external information efforts have a very strong domestic side that have actually still reinforced Xi Jinping's position, and Abe is seen with suspicion. The demonization has been reinforced also through public diplomacy echoing back in the domestic, the demonization of Japan and of Abe in particular, is actually hindering a real détente between Japan and China among other structural factors.

In a sense, you have new institutions within China that have demonized Abe's Japan, and these institutions, such as the Nanking Massacre Memorial Day and others, are obstacles to a more trustful relationship between Japan and China.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you so much, Giulio. Before we go, one last question. As we run up to the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, how do you think Japan is doing with public diplomacy as we go toward 2020? And do you have any advice for the Japanese as we prepare for those Olympics?

GIULIO PUGLIESE: The Olympic Games have normally been associated together with the International Expo as symbolic of the modernity of an advanced country. In fact, East Asian countries have been obsessed with the Olympic Games to the point that we are having a rapid succession of Olympic Games in East Asia, PyeongChang this year, the Summer Olympic Games in Japan, and then the 2022 Winter Olympic Games in China. Then we have, of course, Osaka bidding for the 2025 Expo.

In fact, the frenzy is very strongly felt in Japan, not least because Tokyo lost the bid for the Olympic Games earlier on because they didn’t showcase enough public support and public devotion to having the Olympic Games hosted in Tokyo.

Speaking from Tokyo, I see a lot of sponsors covering Tokyo with publicity about the Olympic Games. You have new taxis by Toyota that look like UK black cabs, and each of them sports an Olympic poster, not least because these cabs are meant to accommodate disabled people, people in wheelchairs. They are spacious enough for people with wheelchairs.

What is interesting and fascinating about the publicity surrounding the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is that they are giving equal importance to the Olympic and the Paralympic Games. They are also marketing the newly unveiled tickets along the 2020 refrain, so the cheapest ticket costs ¥2020 [approx. $18.16], so 2020 again.

You have major newspapers such as the Mainichi Shimbun already covered with flags from all over the world 1,000 days in advance of the Olympic Games. You have public institutions—schools and particularly the Tokyo metropolitan government—covered with Tokyo Olympic Games posters. So clearly there is a frenzy that is trying to drum up, if you want, the Japanese people to participate more actively in promoting the Olympic Games.

One of the least talked-about aspects of public diplomacy, soft power, and communication enforced by the government is that the best public diplomacy is the one that involves the citizens as if they were ambassadors. So if you want, it’s a "whole-of-nation" approach. This is what is happening right now. It's drumming up through the sponsors, through the government and the local public institutions, drumming up the Olympic spirit in preparation for the Olympic Games.

But we shouldn't forget that this is actually very true of all countries in East Asia. I wasn't in South Korea to witness what happened before the PyeongChang Winter Olympic Games, but I remember being in Beijing four years before the 2008 Olympic Games, and I remember the city of Beijing covered with posters in preparation for the Olympic Games. Then the Beijing government would also remind people of how to behave, that it was inappropriate to spit on the streets.

I think this speaks volumes about the importance that Northeast Asian countries especially attach to the Olympic Games. In a sense, Japan is not an outlier. It is pretty much in the same fashion that I understand Japan's rallying for the Olympic spirit.

I think that it's actually quite successful. I had a friend, an Italian sports journalist, coming in and visiting Tokyo, and he was amazed by the preparations that were ongoing that made it look like things were going to be ready on schedule, but also the warmth and the deeply felt interest here and there on the Tokyo Olympic Games. Gauging the pulse from my own anecdotal experience, I would say that it's quite positive, the picture.

DEVIN STEWART: Thank you, Giulio. Giulio Pugliese is a visiting scholar at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. Great speaking with you today, Giulio.

GIULIO PUGLIESE: Thank you very much, Devin.

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