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Foreign Policy

A New Thaw in China-Japan Relations

Oct 21, 2014

For the first time since May 2012, Chinese and Japanese high-level officials from their respective foreign ministries held talks on pressing maritime issues in the Chinese port city of Qingdao. The talks aimed to establish a telephone hotline between senior defense officials in order to prevent accidental clashes between the Chinese and Japanese navies in the East China Sea around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

“The Qingdao meeting is undoubtedly a significant development in that it gives hope that a particularly fraught period in Chinese-Japanese relations may finally be coming to an end,” observes James Brown, a professor at Temple University in Japan, during an interview for Deutsche Welle. In addition to the new round of talks, the largest Japanese trade delegation to China to date visited Beijing in September of this year.

It appears that what some analysts have called “The World’s Most Dangerous Rivalry” may enter a phase of détente and slow de-escalation. However, despite talks of a recent thaw Chinese President Xi Jinping continuous to refuse to officially meet Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum taking place in Beijing in November 2014, although he may be amendable to an informal encounter.

Both sides certainly have a vested interested in deepening an economic and political dialogue. Yet the political leadership in both countries sees nationalism as a useful tool to channel domestic discontent towards an alleged external threat.

Tensions started to rise in September 2012 when the Japanese government bought three of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from a private owner. China retaliated by establishing an ‘East China Air Defense Identification Zone’, which included the disputed islands. However, Japan, the United States and South Korea have ignored China’s unilateral move so far and flew airplanes through the zone without complying with Chinese pre-notification demands. Various confrontations between Chinese and Japanese ships as well military aircrafts ensued over the following months.

According to polls conducted in September 2014 by Genron, a Japan-based NGO, and the Chinese newspaper China Daily, 29% of Japanese, and 53.4% of Chinese citizens are expecting a military confrontation between the two countries. Sixty-nine years after the end of the Second World War and the destruction of Japanese fascism, the Chinese are clearly afraid of a renewed military confrontation with the island nation.

The latent fear of Japanese militarism – born out of the historical legacy of Japan’s brutal domination of East Asia during the Second World War – may perhaps be exploited by Tokyo in its attempt to contain or slow down Chinese expansion in East Asia. By flexing its military muscle (e.g., the re-interpretation of article 9 of the constitution), strengthening old allies, and trying to gain new partners (e.g. India), Japan may try to increase Beijing’s sense of fear and isolation thereby forcing the PRC to the proverbial negotiation table. Of course, such a path can also have the reverse effect and quickly lead to further escalation.

From a layman’s perspective Japan is undoubtedly busy increasing Beijing’s sense of vulnerability.

In the middle of Shinzo Abe requesting the biggest ever Japanese defense budget (around $48 billion), Japan in April 2014 also eased its arms exports restrictions for the first time in nearly 50 years. As an article in Reuters stated: “In a move which alarmed China, where bitter memories of Japan’s past militarism run deep, the government decided to allow arms exports and participation in joint weapons development and production when they serve international peace and Japan’s security.” In reality, Japan is slowly expanding its influence over countries that are at loggerheads with the PRC.

Prime Minister Abe promised the “utmost support” for any nation confronting China in the South China Sea. For example, in June 2014, Vietnam announced that it would receive six coastguard ships from Japan in early 2015. As part of the package, Japan is also sending advisors to help train Vietnamese crews on the new vessels. Japan has furthermore sold 10 brand-new multifunctional patrol ships to the Philippine Coast Guard (PCG). In addition, Japan is also in the process of negotiating the sale of amphibious aircrafts to India, as well as submarine diesel engines to Australia. Moreover, in July of this year, Japan approved the supply of missile interceptors to the United States and military sensor technology to Great Britain.

As confirmed in the 2014 Defense White Paper, the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) are also rapidly modernizing and expanding. The navy will acquire two more destroyers capable of domestic-missile defense (BMD) and update the BMD software on two other ships. The number of regular destroyers is to increase from 48 to 54. The submarine fleet will be expanded from 16 to 22 vessels, and the navy will also acquire 23 new long-rang patrol aircraft. The Air Self-Defense Force (ASDF) and the Ground Self-Defense Force (GSDF) are likewise building up their capabilities. It is not clear that Japan will be able to implement the entire modernization and restructuring program as outlined in the white paper yet it sends a clear message to China (and partly North Korea) that Japan is cognizant of the “fundamentally transformed” security environment of East Asia.

However, Japan’s defense posture is still in principal built around the US-Japan alliance. The white paper points out, “China hopes to forge a kind of U.S.-China relationship it calls ‘a new model of major country relationship’ based on mutual respect and ‘win-win’ cooperation.” Yet, the white paper already emphasizes the following paragraph: “Regarding the Senkaku Islands, the United States has reiterated that the Japan-U.S. Security Treaty applies to the islands.” – a clear signal to China that the US is backing Japan on this contentious issue.

Whether Shinzo Abe’s more aggressive stance towards the PRC in the short run will contribute to a deepening dialogue between China and Japan in the long run remains to be seen. Although it may have contributed to the decision to resume talks on pressing maritime issues between the two countries, the danger of further escalation remains omnipresent.

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