On November 3, 2021, the Japan Forum on International Relations and the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace organized a virtual workshop for a small group of American and Japanese scholars to discuss coordinating U.S.-Japan policy towards China on democracy and human rights. This workshop was the inaugural event of the second project year for the China Risk and China Opportunity for the U.S.-Japan Alliance initiative. The first of three bilateral workshops planned for the upcoming year, the roundtable highlighted the challenge of aligning American and Japanese policy towards China when the countries’ approaches toward defending human rights differ. During the discussion, participants considered ideas for improving an earlier project paper, “U.S.-Japan Four Leaders’ Urgent Recommendations: Proposed Basic Principles for a U.S.-Japan Strategy Towards China.”

As one Japanese scholar stated, “much has happened in the last four or five months since we published the recommendations [paper] in July.” Amid new challenges emerging from China during this period, Japan and the United States have both undergone significant transitions, including a change in leadership for Japan. One Japanese scholar commented that “it is necessary to continue to cooperate with China and to maintain coordination between the United States and Japan.” The same scholar expressed optimism that Prime Minister Kishida might have more flexibility (compared to his predecessors) in terms of crafting China policy that better aligns with U.S. objectives. However, given Kishida’s “bottom-up” leadership approach, ministers will also have a large role in deciding the direction of Japan’s policy toward China. On this front, Defense Minister Kishi is “quite tough on China,” whereas the Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi is seen as less hawkish.

One American scholar emphasized how “grounding U.S.-Japan policy toward China in a set of agreed-upon principles gives us a touchstone to come back to when adjustments are necessary in response to changing circumstances. It will save us time and promote consistency.” In addition, the scholar clarified that “on today’s topic, we’re not trying to coordinate policy specifically for human rights and democracy promotion per se. . . . Today what we’re talking about is this particular issue in the context of how we shape our China policy.”

Three key topics were covered in the workshop: Xinjiang, Hong Kong, and supporting democratic governance more widely. Most participants agreed that although Japan and the United States share similar concerns about China’s behavior both domestically and on the international stage, the Japanese government takes a more nuanced stance against China. However, as an American participant emphasized, regardless of the inherent differences in strategy toward dealing with countries with human rights abuses such as Myanmar or China, policy coordination does not require having the same policy. Instead, it is possible to have complementary strategies that play to each country’s strengths and each country’s unique relationships with other governments.

Xinjiang

One major theme that emerged from discussions about Xinjiang is the stark contrast between American and Japanese public perceptions of the situation in Xinjiang. Whereas in the United States there is strong bipartisan support for taking a stance against human rights abuses in Xinjiang, in Japan, public attention to human rights abuses in Xinjiang is relatively weak, except among more right-wing individuals who often use the Xinjiang issue to further their political interests through criticism of China. Some Japanese participants pointed out that Japanese liberals tend to be relatively sympathetic and tolerant toward China, and often turn a blind eye to China’s human rights problems. Some workshop scholars initially suggested that this gap could be attributed to a lack of public information in Japan about the situation in Xinjiang and the need for the U.S. government to expand intelligence sharing about Xinjiang with the Japanese government. However, several U.S. participants disagreed with the view that evidence of Chinese human rights abuses in Xinjiang was lacking, pointing to a preponderance of pertinent information in the public domain. One participant argued that “it’s easy to say that there is a lack of information, but the source of gaps is much deeper than whether we have enough information or not. The Japanese and American governments place different priorities on human rights, which we can see in policy coordination challenges related to China, Myanmar, and other places.”

The discussion highlighted how the subtle politicization by the political right in Japan regarding Xinjiang information to some extent inhibits other Japanese citizens from expressing support for human rights in China, even if they have access to credible reports of abuses. The Japanese government, and by extension the Japanese public, is “much more conservative in their assessment of intelligence,” meaning that similar information regarding human rights abuses in Xinjiang stimulates less of a reaction than in the United States. This difference was apparent in the discussion when some on the Japanese side used the term “genocide theory” when expressing U.S. perceptions of Chinese actions in Xinjiang, which elicited a strong counterpoint from an American colleague that using such a label mimics Chinese language that tries to discredit any concern over human rights as ideological defamation. A Japanese participant suggested, however, that such a situation is gradually changing in Japan, with increasing media coverage of human rights abuses in China and the suppression of democracy in Hong Kong.

Some suggested working with third countries in the Central Asia and Indo Pacific region to apply pressure on Beijing in order to jointly address the human rights issue in Xinjiang; as one American scholar noted, “China wants to be seen as a leader in the developing world, so it is much more sensitive to criticism from these countries than it is from the United States, which it may view as Western attempts to ‘slander’ China.” However, a Japanese scholar noted that encouraging Muslim-majority countries to speak up on behalf of the Uighur population could be a “double-edged sword,” because some of these countries have human rights abuses of their own.

Hong Kong

Participants expressed similar worries about gaps between the United States and Japan with regards to their stance on Hong Kong. A discrepancy exists between the two countries regarding their respective abilities to address these concerns. While Japan currently does not have a means to sanction countries solely for human rights concerns, the United States recently imposed sanctions on seven Chinese officials in response to the crackdown in Hong Kong in July of 2021. Still, participants noted that Washington has so far refrained from imposing truly painful financial sanctions vis-à-vis Hong Kong, as it would represent a significant escalation with hard-to-predict diplomatic and economic impacts. In this context, leaders on both sides stressed that it is necessary to realistically consider ways in which Japan and the United States can work together on protecting human rights and democracy in Hong Kong.

One Japanese scholar suggested that both countries should pledge support to Hong Kong activists living abroad and increase research on Hong Kong politics for “counterpropaganda.” The same scholar acknowledged that for China to change its behavior, there must be a condition that causes China to “suffer losses by ignoring human rights.” One such example would be if Hong Kong loses its position as an international financial center, which is a major concern of both the Chinese government and the Hong Kong business community. By encouraging “Hong Kong’s businesspeople who worry about the negative impact of the Western countries’ sanctions on the economy to urge the Chinese government to improve the human rights situation in Hong Kong,” the scholar argued that United States and Japan may achieve their interests.

One American participant expressed support for the initial recommendations from the Japanese scholar, but noted that “at the end of the day, it is the Chinese people, their changing views, and their demand on their own government that will lead to changes in China’s domestic system and its behavior abroad.” Therefore, it is important for Japan and the United States to facilitate the “long-term conditions for positive change in China,” which include increasing access to information and debate among Chinese citizens and making sure that Chinese students can continue to study abroad in liberal democracies like the United States and Japan so that they are exposed to different political systems.

Alliance Coordination

The last topic that the group discussed covered a broader theme of policy coordination on human rights and democracy with regard to China. One American scholar asked whether the group should focus on the human rights situation in China specifically, especially in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, or if they should focus more on third countries, in particular in Southeast Asia, where China negatively impacts U.S. and Japanese efforts to promote human rights and democracy. This question underscored the different dimensions in which policy coordination can occur between the allies, and participants’ responses showed how there are a variety of strategies that the United States and Japan can employ to address human rights and democracy concerns.

Using the upcoming Democracy Summit as a hook, one American scholar suggested several ways in which Japan could reinforce U.S. efforts toward strengthening democracy worldwide. Among them, Japan “could be a prominent Asian voice in the upcoming summit” and share its extensive experience with development assistance and public infrastructure investment in emerging economies. Other countries such as Korea and Australia also have similar records of using development assistance to support democratic principles, which could be an opportunity to coordinate more closely. 

At the same time, however, a participant cautioned against U.S.-Japan cooperation on human rights and democracy solely in terms of the Democracy Summit itself, which risks excluding countries in the Indo-Pacific region that are not electoral democracies but are nonetheless important partners in the region. In order to be more inclusive, the participant suggested focusing on countries that also have records of good governance. This point was endorsed by many scholars on the Japanese side, who also shared similar concerns of excluding one country or another. 

Looking beyond the Democracy Summit, the scholar suggested using international institutions as a platform to “engage like-minded countries on ways in which we can make sure that democratic principles are articulated consistently.” Yet participants likewise noted that institutions such as the UN are crucial for promoting human rights concerns, but coordination with other countries is necessary. Further, an American participant stated that “we need to put actions behind U.S.-Japan joint statements in order to make sure that it is not just empty rhetoric,” which means coordinating in areas such as infrastructure. Of particular note, an American participant suggested that in these efforts “Taiwan should be added to any discussion of regional democracies, even without ascribing a particular institutional status.”

Lastly, an American participant advised against framing the promotion of human rights and democracy abroad as a “China issue.” Although China is a “big motivating factor,” the participant voiced that “it shouldn’t look like we are only taking these steps and giving concern and effort to build democratic practices and norms in other countries only because we care about China.” Instead, the scholar reiterated that “we should intrinsically care about these issues anyway” and that our “values are our interests.”

Urgent Recommendations

The group also utilized parts of the discussion to evaluate the previously published urgent recommendations and to offer suggestions for revision. Three areas were flagged as needing to be clarified or revised:

  1. As Japan and the United States work to curtail China’s illiberal external behaviors and compete with China in the international system, they should be clear that they are not attempting to change China into a liberal democracy.

One participant noted that “Hong Kong and Xinjiang are [under Chinese control], so if we want to change the situation, we cannot say that we will only respond to China’s external behaviors.” Along the same line, another participant stated that “Japan and the U.S. should not aim to change China’s regime, but that [does] not mean ignoring the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang.”

One scholar said that “it would be helpful to focus less on what we’re not going to do and speak with more confidence on what we want to do with respect to shared values and principles and ensuring that support for democracy features prominently in our bilateral agenda.” Building on this comment, a different scholar suggested adding a sentence about “how we are seeking to strengthen other Indo-Pacific countries’ ability to make their own sovereign choices and improve their governance.”

  1. The United States and Japan should not be indifferent to China’s human rights abuses or suppression of democracy.

As one scholar warned, “China offers a model of authoritarianism with high economic growth that is very appealing to many governments with autocratic leanings. China enables that model to be pursued by its export of surveillance technology, regulatory regimes like cyber law that do a lot to dampen down civil society space and free flow of information, and a whole host of other problematic policies and practices and technologies.” In this way, China’s actions, both domestically and internationally, have an impact on democracy worldwide.

However, another scholar noted that although people in the group were able to agree that they shared serious concerns about China’s role in human rights abuses and suppression of democracy, “the original ‘urgent recommendations’ were totally unspecific in terms of what should be done. We could only agree that we ‘should not be indifferent’ to China’s actions. So, there is room to get a little bit more specific about the types of measures we would seek to take, either in the form of more active support of oppressed people, a more energetic multilateral diplomatic campaign, and/or negative reinforcement such as sanctions or trade penalties.”

  1. The United States and Japan are resolved that China should not be permitted to usher in an illiberal international order in the future. Rather, the foundation for the future international order must be laid by the forces of liberal democracies, an endeavor that will have the United States and Japan at its core.

One American participant highlighted that “one of the points of competition in a region is . . . that democracies [must] deliver, and . . . U.S. domestic situation [makes it] it’s harder to show that. So working together with Japan on issues like COVID-19, digital infrastructure, and being able to show that we are delivering on the Asia-Pacific is absolutely critical in reinforcing the democratic model.”

Another participant noted that, although the recommendations talk about preserving the status quo, “I wonder if we want to revisit that to some degree. It’s not the status quo per se, it’s why the current system or approach is beneficial and should be attractive and beneficial to nations around the world. So, it’s not about imposing or holding on to our (alliance) sense of entitlement or power, but what’s better for human beings and prosperity, and democratic governance among international states.”