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Foreign Policy

Sino-Japanese Ties in 2013 and the Role of the US

Jan 13 , 2014

It has become customary in East Asian countries in recent years to hold a year-end poll to choose a Chinese character that best symbolizes the year on a certain theme. However, there has been no attempt so far to select an “annual Chinese character”, as it is called, for the China-Japan relationship. I would choose “dou” (literally struggle between adversaries contending for the upper hand) to encapsulate the bilateral relations in 2013.

“Dou” in 2013 was the continuation and escalation of “zheng”, or dispute, between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands in 2012. Instances of dou came in three categories in 2013. The first was the tussle over the territory in dispute. This is the biggest problem between China and Japan. The most glaring contradiction was Japan’s denial of the fact that dispute exists over Diaoyu and that the two countries had reached consensus for “shelving the dispute”. This obstinate attitude of the Japanese government constituted a denial of the possibility of settling the dispute through negotiation. China was also adamant, insisting that Japan must acknowledge the dispute. On September 14, a China Coast Guard fleet conducted its first patrol in waters near the Diaoyu Islands. On November 23, Chinese Defense Ministry announced the establishment of an Air Defense Identification Zone over East China Sea, which covers the Diaoyu Islands.

The second category of dou between China and Japan is the confrontation of the two countries’ security systems, which is especially evident in the fact that Tokyo explicitly listed China as its enemy. In November 2013, both China and Japan decided to establish their respective National Security Commissions. In the organizational setup of Japan’s national security conference, there are “Department of Allies and Friendly Nations” and “Department of Other Nations” but China is included in neither department. Instead, China is in a separate list together with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, which Tokyo calls a “rogue country”. That manifests the Abe administration’s attitude towards China. On December 17, the Japanese government adopted the “Strategy for National Security in the Next 10 Years” and a new “Defense Program Outline”. International media commented that this largest military reform since World War II is aimed at confronting China.

The third type of dou came in the form of national emotions stirred up by historical problems. History has always been the Achilles’ heel of Japanese diplomacy. Former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was once refused by the US Congress to deliver a scheduled speech at the Capitol Hill because of his denial of Japan’s aggressive past. After Shinzo Abe resumed premiership for the second term, Japanese politics accelerated its right-turn, nationalist drive. Tokyo adopted a dodging and even denying attitude on all issues concerning Japan’s aggressive history, such as the understanding of the aggressive nature of the wars Japan waged in World War II, the issue of comfort women, Japanese leaders’ visits to the Yasukuni shrine, the Potsdam Proclamation and the post-war Yalta international order. That aroused indignation and protests from the people of China, the Republic of Korea and other victim countries. They asked Japan to reflect on its wartime responsibility and no longer do anything to harm the feelings of the Chinese and other victim countries’ people. A media survey in 2013 conducted in China and Japan indicates that the Chinese public’s negative impression about Japan had reached a historical high.

The Sino-Japanese relationship has never been mired in such a predicament as it is today since the two countries normalized their diplomatic ties in 1972. Recently, European scholars and media likened today’s Asia to Europe of 100 years ago in their comments marking the 100th anniversary of World War I. Some of them said they seemed to have heard an “ominous echo” of history. With such an explosive confrontation, how to handle their bilateral relations proves to be a thorny problem for China and Japan. It is also a test for the United States, for the superpower on the other side of the Pacific Ocean has always been an influential and even decisive player in East Asian affairs. Uncle Sam must do something to prevent the Sino-Japanese dou from flaring up into military conflicts.

There are at least three things the US can do in 2014. First, review its rebalancing strategy and coordinate it with its China policy. After the end of the Cold War, regional order in East Asia remained to be a mixture of a hierarchical system and an anarchic system. The current territorial disputes in East and South China Seas are apparently between China and Japan, the Philippines and some other countries. But they will eventually end up causing troubles in the Sino-US relations, for those security-reliant countries such as Japan and the Philippines always try to push their security purveyor on stage from behind the scenes. When drafting the rebalancing strategy, Washington eyed more on the favorable side of the East Asian ally system. Now it needs to give some consideration to the unfavorable side and coordinate its East Asia security policy with its China policy. Of course, China also needs to coordinate its own East Asia security policy with that of the US.

Second, review the strategic basis of the Sino-US relationship. At present, that relationship has once again come to a stage of transition. The basis for the strategic cooperation is turning from the need to cope with a common threat to the need to create joint benefits. The top benefit is peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region. It is only with peace and stability that China and the US can share development and prosperity. Even in Japan, surveys have shown that what the Japanese people are concerned with most is the economy rather than security. An improved economy and a success in hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics in peace will bring more opening and confidence to Japan.

Third, the US can, as an ally, urge Japan to admit the islands dispute and push for negotiations between China and Japan for a soft landing of the dispute and military confrontation. The US is the most powerful country and the most energetic in promoting moral values. However, it has not played a constructive role on the Sino-Japanese dispute. On the one hand, it claims that it does not take sides on the Sino-Japanese territorial dispute; on the other, it supports Japan’s “right to exercise administration”. This ambiguous attitude may appear to be just an impassive third party’s aloofness for the time being, but in the long run it will most likely ruin Japan and involve itself in the trouble because of the wrong signal such ambiguity has conveyed. Beijing, Tokyo and Washington should all make efforts to avoid being dragged into a crisis or even a war by the islands dispute. And they all should work for better cooperation in Asia Pacific affairs. Whether they can realize these must-dos matters greatly to their future.

Jin Ying is a Research Associate at the Institute of Japanese Studies at CASS.

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