With the exchange of visits by their prime ministers, China and Japan have restored their relationship in 2018 after years of serious difficulties. They now stand at a new historic starting point. At the end of June this year, President Xi Jinping met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the G20 Summit in Osaka. Xi reached ten points of common understanding with Prime Minister Abe and accepted his invitation to pay a state visit to Japan next spring. The meeting has injected new vigor into the relationship, serving as a stepping stone into a new stage. However, defense and security ties between the two countries remain weak links that need to be strengthened.
Defense and security relations between China and Japan are challenged.
First, the two still have many security differences and their maritime disputes remain serious.
Second, the military confrontation in the East China Sea that emerged after the Diaoyu Islands crisis will hardly disappear soon. In recent years, Japan has notably shifted its defense priority to its Southwest and China.
Third, mutual suspicion still manifests clearly in the military security field. Many in Japan talk about military threats from China, while China remains deeply concerned about Japan revising its constitution in order to gain status as a military power.
Fourth, the two countries seriously differ on regional security mechanisms. Japan has long regarded its military alliance with the US as the foundation for regional security, whereas China finds it necessary to cultivate greater multilateral security cooperation mechanisms in the region and to see America’s bilateral military alliances transformed.
Fifth, the resumption of defense dialogue and exchange has been slow. The annual defense and security consultation at the vice-ministerial level suspended in 2012 has yet to resume, and the level of formal dialogue between the two sides is otherwise still low.
Sixth, given the evident risk of maritime disputes between China and Japan, their development of security crisis management mechanisms has been too slow. Liaison mechanisms for sea and air encounters were launched in June last year, but with minimal content, and the relevant hotlines are still not available for use. In terms of security crisis management mechanisms, the systems developed between China and Japan still lag far behind those established between China and the US.
Seventh, the Taiwan question has persisted as one of the three major friction points between China and Japan. As tensions flare, cross-strait relations may pose a new challenge to China-Japan security relations.
In the face of these clear shortcomings, and especially in a situation where the overall relationship is warming and improving, it is critical for both sides to strengthen their defense and security dialogue as well as their crisis management. These will be important safeguards moving forward for the two countries to avoid conflict or confrontation. Addressing these issues will also create the conditions for defense and security relations to improve, and will ultimately be an essential factor for China-Japan relations to enjoy sound and stable development in the long term.
Suggested measures to strengthen China-Japan defense and security dialogue and crisis management
First, annual vice-ministerial defense and security consultations should be reinstated as soon as possible, allowing both sides to advance the recovery and development of defense exchanges. Not long ago, Japan proposed a 2+2 dialogue with China on foreign and defense affairs. The Chinese side should take such proposals seriously, and this type of dialogue is most likely to start at the vice-ministerial level. In addition, the two countries should consider gradually and at appropriate times developing dialogue and exchanges between their respective armies, navies, and air forces, and conducting joint military exercises for maritime search and rescue or terrorism preparedness.
Second, the defense and security dialogue should prioritize defense and security cooperation. The two sides should start collaboration as soon as possible in global governance, non-traditional security, denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, and maintenance of sea lane security.
Third, through visits, dialogues, and consultations, Chinese and Japanese senior defense officials should engage in in-depth dialogue and exchanges on defense and security policies so as to reduce misunderstanding or miscalculation and to increase mutual understanding and trust.
Fourth, development of crisis management and related mechanisms should be further strengthened through high-level political dialogue, defense and security consultations (or 2+2 diplomatic and security dialogue), and consultations on maritime affairs.
Fifth, hotlines should be put in place and operational. The measure proposed as part of the liaison mechanisms between the navies and air forces should be implemented as soon as possible. The two sides should also consider putting in place or reinstating hotlines between the diplomatic and defense departments as well as between leaders of the two countries. The crisis management function of hotlines should be specified to ensure their role in a crisis.
Sixth, attention should be paid to crisis control and, more importantly, to crisis prevention. China and Japan should make active efforts to introduce and strengthen confidence-building measures targeting each other’s security concerns. They may borrow established practices between China and the US, and they may consider prioritizing the creation of a code of conduct to govern encounters at sea and in the air, as well as the establishment of mechanisms for notifying major military operations.
Seventh, the two countries should strive for a common understanding on jointly maintaining peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait and in the South China Sea. Japan should strictly abide by its one-China policy and not develop any official relations with Taiwan. China should continue with its effort to develop the South China Sea into a “sea of peace, friendship and cooperation.” China can continue to maintain peace and stability in the area through bilateral dialogues and the development of a code of conduct.
Eighth, as the situation evolves, the relevant parties may consider developing trilateral security dialogues between China, Japan, and the US. Such dialogues may address the evident opposition between China and the US-Japan alliance, and in the process may promote security cooperation between China and Japan.
On the basis of these measures, China and Japan should also strengthen their track 2 and track 1.5 security dialogues, gradually increasing their scope and depth. As they make progress, these track 2 dialogues may gradually move towards track 1.