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Foreign Policy

Crisis Management Needed between China and Japan

Nov 19 , 2014
  • Zhou Bo

    Honorary Fellow, PLA Academy of Military Science


The world collectively sighed with relief after President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shizo Abe shook hands with solemn, even glum, expressions. The nerve-wracking ordeal that has protracted for the last two years seems over – at least for the time being.

Thanks to the “four points consensus,” which owes in part to the clandestine visit of Ex-Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, the two heads of states finally met and talked during APEC in Beijing. A wild guess is that both sides have reached a tacit understanding that Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will not visit Yashu Kuni Shrine again during his tenure. Without directly mentioning the island dispute and history issue, the four points leave leeway for each side to interpret its own positions without compromising dignity to the other side. The good thing is, it signals a green light that is long overdue.

Sadly, one of the distinctive features of the Sino-Japanese relations is vulnerability, especially compared to the Sino-American relations that are characterized with more resilience. The impact of a crisis between China and the U.S. – be it U.S. arms sale to Taiwan, or U.S.-led bombardment on the Chinese Embassy in the former Yugoslavia – normally won’t last for more than one year. But the relations between China and Japan have been frosty for over two years since Japan decided to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands. Whenever there is a problem in the Sino-U.S. relationship, there are many “firemen” from both sides who would come to the rescue whereas in Sino-Japanese relationship, a strong sense of hopelessness is often felt at all levels.

Such vulnerability is most obviously felt in the security field. The exchanges between the Chinese PLA and Japanese Self Defense Force are always low profile and never in full swing. Whenever the relations at government levels turn sour, the military-to-military relations also come to a stop. In the last two years, the two militaries have virtually no interaction, but sailors and pilots have had dangerous encounters at sea and in the air. Nobody can imagine what will ensue should a Chinese and Japanese military aircraft collide in the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), like what happened between a Chinese J-8 and an American EP-3 in 2001. An alarmist Japanese media has portrayed various scenarios of China and Japan going to war.

What is best needed between China and Japan today? The answer is not trade, but crisis management.

Crisis management starts with confidence building measures. In June 2012, the two militaries have agreed to establish a maritime liaison mechanism. According to senior Japanese officials, all the details, including annual meetings at different levels and direct telephone links between captains of ships and pilots of aircraft were already discussed. However these details were abandoned because of the island dispute. The good news is that both governments have agreed to restart negotiations. Hopefully an agreement will come out soon.

Another stabilizer is the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES). In April 2014, twenty-one countries including China and Japan unanimously voted for CUES. The CUES provides various maritime procedure codes: to avoid collisions with vessels in formation; maintain safe speeds and distance; and refrain from aerobatics and simulated attacks in the vicinity of ships encountered. Given that both Chinese and Japanese vessels are operating in the same waters off the disputed islands, it is critically important that the officers and sailors are fully aware of these rules and procedures. It is even necessary for them to conduct joint familiarization-oriented exercises on CUES, as the Chinese and the US navies did during RIMPAC 2014 exercise.

Crisis on the sea is relatively easier to manage. The more dangerous area is in the air. China, Japan and the U.S. all have military aircraft that occasionally get too close to each other in the air. Due to geographic proximity, the ADIZs of China, Japan and the Republic of Korea overlap with one another. During President Obama’s visit, China and the U.S. announced the conclusion of a memorandum on the rules of behavior for air and maritime encounters. Could China, Japan and the R.O.K. follow suit and conclude a similar agreement? This is not impossible, given that the Chinese military spokesman has expressed in November 2013 that in the overlapping areas, China and Japan should coordinate and make joint efforts to maintain flight security. But this will not be possible if Japan still refuses to recognize the legitimacy of China’s ADIZ.

How will the future look like after President Xi shook hands with Prime Minister Abe? There is no clear answer. But China and Japan should steer the course clear of one thing: war. China and Japan will never fight again. This is the oath sworn and repeated by the leaders of the two countries. It should be remembered as a principle above all. It cannot afford to be an empty slogan.

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