Meet Amy King: What can Australia learn from Japan’s engagement with China?

Wednesday, 4 November 2020

Amy King is a Senior Lecturer in the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre at ANU. She speaks to us about China’s role in (re)shaping the international economic order since World War Two. Based on her recent research on President Xi’s worldview, Amy explains Australia’s position in Xi’s foreign policy.

As Sino-American relations are at their lowest point, she shares Japan’s experience in working through their relationship with China that might shed some light on Australia’s engagement with China. And finally, if you are looking for a non-fiction or fiction book to read over Christmas, read on to see a recommendation from Amy for you!

1) Tell us a little bit about yourself.

I grew up in the southern suburbs of Adelaide. I count myself as extremely fortunate to have gone to a high school where, back in the 1980s, the headmistress recognised the importance of Japan to Australia’s future. She decided that her students should study Japanese and so, at age 12, I started learning the language.

I loved studying Japanese, continued at university after leaving school, and finally had the chance to visit Japan when I became an exchange student at Okayama University in 2004-2005. It was actually while studying in Okayama that I first became interested in the Japan-China relationship. In Okayama, most of my classmates were from China and Taiwan, and as it happened, major anti-Japanese protests were taking place across China in 2005. In between learning our keigo [Japanese honorifics], we spent hours talking about the protests and what it all meant. There’s little doubt that those conversations left a more lasting impression on me than the keigo!

When I returned to Australia later that year, I was determined to learn more about China and to find a way to study Chinese. I managed to win a scholarship to Oxford that allowed me to do just that. I spent the next five years travelling between Oxford and Beijing, studying Chinese and International Relations, and carrying out the research for my doctorate and what ultimately became my first book, China-Japan relations after World War Two: Empire, Industry and War, 1949–1971.

2) Can you recommend a book you've read recently?

I recently finished Julia Phillips’ Disappearing Earth, a story about two young Russian sisters who are kidnapped one day while walking along their local beach. Phillips creates such a strong sense of place and time with her writing.

The book is set on the Kamchatka Peninsula in the Russian Far East, and Phillips beautifully captures the changes that are happening in this part of the Russian Federation in the years immediately following the collapse of the Soviet Union. She shows us how the Peninsula is being gradually opened up to migrants from different parts of the former Soviet empire and beyond, and the complicated relationship between Kamchatka’s Russian and ethnic minority populations.

Most importantly though, the book is just a really gripping narrative. Phillips tells the story of the girls’ disappearance in 13 chapters, each written from the perspective of a different female character on the Peninsula. It was a great plot device and I already want to go back and read it again to see how Phillips put the story together — always a sign of a gripping read!

I’m now in the middle of Richard Ben Cramer’s classic account of the 1988 US Presidential election, What It Takes: The Way to the White House. Through intense research and remarkable writing, Cramer weaves together the biographies and careers of six Republican and Democratic candidates as they make their way through the 1988 campaign and primaries (including the current contender, Joe Biden, in his first run at President!). It’s been a good distraction to read this during a very different 2020 US Presidential election campaign.

3) What sparked your interest to undertake research on China's role in shaping the international economic order during and after WWII?

A key finding from my research on the China-Japan relationship centred on the role of economics in shaping not only China’s post-WWII foreign policy towards Japan, but also in shaping the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s broader thinking about national security.

For the CCP, the lessons from Japan’s economic development path, and access to technology and industrial expertise and goods from Japan were seen as crucial to China’s own security and future development. That led me to look at Mao-era ideas about international economic order more generally, and to some research showing that China was much more connected with the global economy during the Mao-era than we typically think.

From there, I became fascinated with thinking about continuities and changes across the 1949 divide, and in particular to the role played by China (led by the Guomindang) in the creation of the post-WWII international economic order.

We know so much about what the United States, Britain, Australia and other Western powers thought about the workings and purpose of the international economy at this major moment of international order transition, but very little about China’s ideas. Through funding from the Australian Research Council and the Westpac Scholars Trust, I’ve been able to undertake research into Chinese, Taiwanese, US and other archives to better understand China’s role and ideas during the creation of this order, and what this means for China’s future order-shaping role.

4) In your co-authored article (with Rosemary Foot) 'China’s world view in the Xi Jinping Era: Where do Japan, Russia and the USA fit?', you argued that developmentalism, security partnerships, and the idea of sovereign equality are key to President Xi's world view. Where would Australia fit on these three dimensions in light of the recent mishaps in bilateral relations?

One of our goals in this paper was to move away from ‘new Cold War’ or ‘authoritarian versus liberal’ depictions of global politics. These simplistic labels are not that helpful analytically, and tend to focus almost solely on the US-China relationship, therefore ignoring many of China’s other major power relations.

We also wanted to more systematically study how Chinese foreign policy might have changed under Xi Jinping, because he has taken much more personal control over policy making in China, and has placed relatively more emphasis on foreign policy than his predecessors.

Ultimately, we find in the paper that there is a spectrum in China’s relations with the US, Russia, and Japan, and that these three states line up quite differently in their degree of support (or not) for Xi Jinping’s foreign policy ideas of developmentalism, security partnerships, and sovereign equality.

I would probably place Australia as lying somewhere between the United States and Japan on this spectrum — Australia shares most of the US’ concerns about Xi’s vision for more exclusionary Asian security partnerships, and his vision of a more pluralist state-based world order founded on sovereign equality and non-interference by the West in other country’s internal affairs.

However, like Japan, Australia has been more willing to support Xi’s championing of an ‘open’ economic order because of concerns that ‘decoupling’ in the US-China relationship could undermine the international economic order in ways that are also harmful to Australia.

Unlike Japan, though, Australia has been much less successful in finding ways to selectively engage with Xi’s foreign policy ideas where they benefit Australia. Some of the blame for this lies with Xi Jinping, whose government has failed to reassure the US and its allies that their security and prosperity can be preserved in a world in which China is more powerful.

But Australia has also failed to put in the sustained engagement and creativity needed to work with China on areas where our interests overlap.

5) As US-China relations continue to deteriorate, how has Japan — a US ally and also China's number two trading partner — navigated through those tensions?

It is really important for Australians to better understand Japan’s thinking at this global moment, because Japan faces these tensions in its relations with the US and China much more acutely than we do.

Japan’s economy is tightly bound up with China’s, it faces direct security threats from China, it provides the most important base for the United States’ forward operating presence in Asia, and it relies heavily on the United States for its own security.

Perhaps because of these acute tensions, Japan has had to find ways to work with China on issues of mutual interest — for instance, in investing in joint China-Japan infrastructure projects in Asia — while simultaneously pursuing competitive balancing strategies to help bolster the US-led order.

China has recognised Japan’s efforts in this regard, and has been willing to dampen some of the nationalist tensions that existed in their relationship in previous years. I don’t want to overstate the health of the Japan-China relationship, however. Japan and China have yet to do the really serious work of thinking through what a mutually acceptable future strategic order in Asia looks like. Until then, Japan will continue to face these simultaneous tensions in its relations with the US and China.

6) What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on a book and a series of articles exploring China’s ideas about the international economy in the 1940s and 1950s, and the legacy of this period for contemporary questions about development, the ‘high-tech’ world order, and how international orders are shaped and change.

Like many others, I’ve had to navigate the challenges of doing internationally based research during a time of COVID — it simply hasn’t been possible to get into the archives or travel to China this year.

Thankfully, I have a terrific research team working with me in China, Europe and here in Canberra to help find creative ways through these challenges, and who are also pursuing exciting research of their own on China’s role in shaping international development norms and the international monetary order. More information about my current research can be found at

Photo credit: ANU Media

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