In September 2012, Japan “nationalized” the Diaoyu Islands, to which China reacted strongly. A serious political security crisis broke out between China and Japan. It has been over two years since then. The political security crisis is now under certain control and removed from high risk stakes. However, the crisis has not been completely resolved and China-Japan security relations have not returned to normalcy.
After the Diaoyu Islands crisis, China-Japan relations once experienced extreme tension, with voices on an un-avoidable war between them resounding. At that time, I put forward three scenarios with regard to the crisis situation and possible prospects of their political and security relations.
The first was that the two sides have an accidental event in the East China Sea, waters surrounding Diaoyu Islands in particular, leading to crisis escalating out of control and triggering military conflict or even war, with a complete severance of relations between China and Japan. That would have been the worst case scenario.
The second scenario situated a tense battle between Japan and China, which would have recognized in certain form the existence of a territorial dispute and the two sides reaching new consensus or tacit understanding on Diaoyu Island issue. And at the same time the two sides would re-establish the policy of taking history as a mirror and establish that Japanese leaders refrain from paying tribute to the Yashukuni Shrine. In these circumstances, bilateral relations should gradually move towards stability and normality and make new progress. That would be the best scenario, however difficult to realize.
The third scenario would result in the Diaoyu Islands crisis being managed gradually and military conflict avoided. However if the two sides would fail to reach new common understanding on major friction issues, such as island dispute and the remembrance of history, the bilateral ties would fall into a stalemate. In this situation, some dialogue and cooperation may be resumed but it will be difficult to fundamentally improve political and security relations. The feature of “cold political and cool economical interactions” would be manifested for a long period of time. Unfortunately, this is the most likely prospect.
It now seems that the worst-case scenario can be excluded. Because both sides have realized that dispute over Diaoyu Islands is not the entirety of their relations and they still have major common interests. Both are aware that in the new international situation, confrontation or war between major powers will only result in a lose-lose situation. It is equally important for not only China and Japan to avoid military conflict, but also for the international community, East Asian countries and the U.S. – Japan’s main ally—do not wish to see a military conflict between the two nations.
Then will the best scenario unfold in the near future? Will China and Japan reach new common understanding and enable bilateral relations to comprehensively improve and develop? The likelihood of this scenario becoming reality in the near or mid term is low, although both China and Japan are making efforts towards this peaceful end, with the support of the global community.
As for the upcoming bilateral summit meeting during APEC, the Chinese government has insisted that Japan should recognize the existence of China’s sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands (because only with such a recognition can the both sides develop dialogue and seek resolution) and that Japanese leaders should make a commitment not to pay tribute to the Yashukuni Shrine where 14 Class A war criminals are worshipped. The two demands are completely reasonable. But judging from the current situation, there is still a big gap of agreement between the two sides.
If China and Japan can finally reach common understanding (even a tacit one) on their major differences and their leaders formally meet during APEC meeting, it is possible for bilateral relations to see much improvement in the future. However, if the two sides are not able to achieve a formal summit meeting, then it will be difficult to break the stalemate in bilateral political and security relations and it is possible that their frictions may increase again. Next year Japan will amend a series of laws and regulations so as to lift the ban on collective self-defense and seek a permanent membership at the UN Security Council. The year 2015 also marks the 70th anniversary of the anti-fascist and anti-Japanese war and China will have many commemorations. If basic common understanding on the Daioyu Islands and history still hasn’t been reached, bilateral relations will likely run into more troubles and the stalemate will be protracted for even longer time.
So in order to consolidate the signs of relaxation, and more importantly to prevent increase of friction, it is essential for China and Japan to make efforts on the following three aspects after the APEC meetings.
The first is to advance maritime security consultation and reopen consultation on maritime liaison mechanisms between defense departments according to the principled agreement reached at the end of September. The dialogues of self-restraint that have been exercised by the two sides in the East China Sea for some time must become an effective crisis management mechanism and code of conduct, therefore truly enhancing crisis and risk management in the East China Sea.
Second, while formal leadership meetings and exchange of visits cannot be resumed any time soon, the two sides should take steps to gradually resume first the main dialogue and exchange mechanisms between them, including defense dialogues and exchanges. The Chinese side was prepared to do so at the end of last year. It was Abe’s sudden visit to the Yashukuni Shrine that obstructed dialogue recovery.
Third, in areas of common interests, the two sides should spare no effort to develop all possible economic and security co-operations so as to actively expand the positive aspects of China-Japan bilateral relations.
If China and Japan can make positive progress in the above three areas, even though the political stalemate and security dilemma between them will continue existing for quite some time, relative stability and partial improvement of their relations in the near and mid-term can still be expected. Such a development, if achieved, will bring about sufficient time and create necessary conditions for the two sides to lower military confrontation, reduce strategic mutual suspicion and increase mutually-beneficial cooperation in the longer term and to ultimately resolve the question of history and territorial disputes and move out of the period of frequent frictions caused by power shift in East Asia.
It is written in the fourth political document between China and Japan that “The two sides confirm that the two countries are mutual cooperation partners and do not pose a threat to each other. The two sides reiterate that they will support each other’s peaceful development. The two sides firmly believe that China and Japan, both pursuing peaceful development, will bring about huge opportunities and benefits to Asia and the world.” This is the only correct choice for the development of China-Japan relations. The two sides should have confidence to overcome the current serious difficulties and strive to return to this correct path at the earliest possible date.