Beijing’s campaigns fail to influence Japan, analysts say

Beijing’s campaigns fail to influence Japan, analysts say

Felix Kim

Long-running efforts by the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to improperly assert influence in Japan have broadly failed, particularly in attempting to cause divisions between Japan and its ally, the United States, according to analysts in Japan.

Such influence tactics — called sharp or malign — can involve techniques such as information manipulation, bribery and coercion to sway politicians, the public and business leaders, and they date to the PRC’s founding in 1949, according to Masaya Inoue, a professor of law and political science at Japan’s Keio University.

The PRC’s use of sharp power in Japan achieved its greatest success in the 1970s and 1980s, taking advantage of rifts in the then-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), Inoue wrote in an analysis in the Asia Pacific Institute’s Geoeconomic Briefing.

“During the 1980s every time an issue came up between the two countries, Beijing tried to solve the problem through back-channel negotiations with LDP faction leaders in parallel with talks using official diplomatic channels,” he wrote.

Inoue also cited Beijing’s attempts to fuel opposition in Japan to the signing of the U.S.-Japan security treaty in 1960 and its efforts to create a split among Japanese lawmakers by inviting select members of Japan’s national assembly to visit the PRC.

In business, Beijing applied similar influence on Japanese trade organizations.

More recent campaigns to sway Japanese opinion and policy in favor of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) are described in “China’s Influence in Japan: Everywhere Yet Nowhere in Particular,” a July 2020 report published by the Center for Strategic and International Studies.

In the report, author Devin Stewart, a former opinion editor for The Japan Times newspaper who died in 2021, distinguishes “benign” campaigns from “malign” ones. The benign campaigns include Beijing’s overtures to win favor in Japan during the COVID-19 pandemic with expressions of gratitude in PRC state media for Tokyo’s donations of personal protective equipment.

By contrast, the malign campaigns include Beijing’s efforts over the past two decades to stir up an independence movement in Japan’s Okinawa prefecture. The establishment of 15 PRC state-funded Confucius Institutes across Japan represents a mix of benign and malign, Stewart wrote, as the institutes officially promote cross-border friendship and Chinese culture but have been widely accused of spreading propaganda, hindering free speech and gathering intelligence for the CCP.

According to Inoue, Japan developed resistance to Beijing’s sharp power tactics because of growing and widespread understanding of the problem dating back decades. Japan’s government took steps in the 1990s to limit Beijing’s influence over factional leaders in the Japanese Diet with administrative reform that strengthened the prime minister’s role in implementing foreign policies, he added.

In addition, Beijing’s oppression at home and its encroachment abroad have undermined any gains from such influence campaigns in Japan. Chief among these are the Tiananmen Square protests by students who called for freedom and the subsequent massacre of civilians by the People’s Liberation Army in Beijing and the repeated unlawful intrusions of PRC vessels into Japanese territorial waters.

After Tiananmen, Japanese businesses scaled back their ties with PRC firms. Diversity of opinion among Japan’s business leaders also made it harder for PRC influence campaigns to gain any clout.

Stewart cited public opinion survey data showing that the PRC’s favorability among Japanese peaked when diplomatic relations between Beijing and Tokyo began in 1972, with precipitous drops following Tiananmen and the Senkaku Islands disputes starting in 2010. The data showed Japanese sentiment toward the U.S. remaining consistently positive.

The Japanese public today largely views the PRC as a threat, due in large part to Chinese vessels intruding around the Senkakus, further limiting the effectiveness of Beijing’s influence operations, Inoue wrote.

Felix Kim is a FORUM contributor reporting from Seoul, South Korea.