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Foreign Policy

Strategic Policy Adjustments and Sino-Japanese Relations

Apr 01 , 2014

In 2005, Sino-Japanese relations suffered its first crisis in many years due to then Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s repeated pilgrimages to the Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 Class-A convicted war criminals are enshrined. Since then, relations with Japan have almost always (or at least very frequently) been the longest-lasting number 1 difficulty and conundrum for China, especially after the two rounds of fierce confrontation broke out in September 2010 and September 2012 over the Diaoyu Islands, and with the current Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s flagrant visit to the Yasukuni Shrine. 

On matters regarding Japan, many people have very habitually lacked necessary perspective, especially perspective on the national psychology of present-day Japan. From the perspectives of more and more Japanese nationals, in the more than six decades after the end of World War II, namely in the time of western liberal international economics and apparent American superiority of power, Japan has adhered to the commercial welfare of a “rising trading nation” and a pacifist national orientation. What has this brought to them in the contemporary world? It has brought them more than 20 years of protracted economic recession; a severely shrunk world market; dramatic and continuous increases in the economic and military strength as well as international impacts from a gigantic China; apparent relative decline of American advantages; potential erosion of the credibility of US commitment to protecting Japan; the worsening of Japan’s military and security environment they have perceived (not to mention such psychological characteristics as paranoid suspiciousness that have resulted from and been enhanced by their post-war vassal status); and a conspicuously rapid drop in Japan’s international status, image and prestige. These are the basic conditions and trends before their eyes, all of which could be lasting and structural, rather than temporary and situational. Under such circumstances, they are certainly prone to the various propagation and instigation of rightist forces, and are more likely to consider accepting changes in Japan’s national orientation in accordance with the will of rightist forces. 

It is thus necessary to point out that the rest of the world, with the exception of China and Japan, generally believe that although the Sino-Japanese standoff that has lasted for years, particularly after September 2012, has been provoked by the Japanese government and rightist forces in Japan, its worsening, escalation, and protracted duration has derived from Sino-Japanese interactions. Without remembering this in our thinking, judgment, and strategic planning, how could we truly convince or influence the rest of the world according to our sense of right and wrong as well as rightful interests? 

Shinzo Abe’s brazen tribute to the Yasukuni challenged universal human sense of justice, acerbated confrontation between China and Japan as well as antagonism between South Korea and Japan, and therefore invited broad international condemnation and criticism, including those from governments of major countries. This has offered China an important strategic (or at least tactic) opportunity. Such a situation bestows on China the diplomatic initiative. What we need to do is just properly and timely easing military and quasi-military initiatives according to new conditions, while sustaining the struggles over the Diaoyu Islands and in the East China Sea, and paying special attention to the posture and rhetoric of the diplomatic endeavors that are destined to upgrade. 

Under new conditions, the Chinese government’s constant strategy and tactics regarding the Diaoyu Islands need some corresponding adjustments. For that purpose, we currently should: (1) quietly and appropriately reduce the frequency of regular patrols regarding the Diaoyu Islands; (2) be strictly careful to avoid conflict between Chinese and Japanese military planes over the East China Sea; (3) be flexible in practice and temporarily suspend implementation of the “maximum version” of the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, particularly the stipulations on civilian aviation planes from foreign countries; (4) while absolutely not engaging in top-level bilateral meeting with Abe, restore the moderately high level diplomatic contacts that have virtually been absent since the summer of 2013, so as to control confrontation and prevent it from escalating into military conflicts; (5) correctly control and operate domestic media’s own coverage of the rapid progress of the Chinese military build-up, which is of great significance not only to Sino-Japanese relations, but also to Sino-US relations and the country’s overall relationship with the rest of the world, and raises the question of how to best prevent the serious acerbating of “China threat” allegations and prevent them from translating into very real military/strategic contests against China; (6) in close correlation with the afore-mentioned aspects, take advantage of American strategic concerns regarding Abe, try to make sure that the United States return to its previous stance over the Sino-Japanese standoff that was not that sympathetic and biased for Japan (i.e. the stance prior to then US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s January 19, 2013 statement), and strive to let the US more forcefully participate in preventing, even prohibiting, Japan from formally backpedalling on historical issues and radical tendencies in revising its constitution.   

Therefore, one point needs to be made clearly: Shinzo Abe’s serious predicament in the international community resulted from his Yasukuni pilgrimage is relative, or even very possibly temporary, because he may adjust, because although he relies on Japanese rightists, he and the rightists and even Japan as a country depend unprecedentedly on the US both strategically and diplomatically. The Sino-Japanese standoff in the East China Sea involves a major historical state of affairs, i.e. the expansion of China’s strategic space beyond the narrow strip of water along its own coast. So we should not overestimate the diplomatic advantages Abe has presented us through visiting the Yasukuni. 

Lastly, as to the struggles over the Diaoyu Islands, we should understand the differences between a war, a campaign and a battle (analogically) from a philosophical level. The history of war often presents such a scenario: A certain campaign started out to a great extent as a result of an emergent and provisional state of affairs, just like the present fierce confrontation between China and Japan was abruptly provoked by the Japanese government’s illicit announcement to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands, so there will inevitably be factors that are not that consistent with the grand purpose of the war. How do we treat such factors? How do we treat the pros and cons of the campaign, in particular those of the initial battles (pros and cons from the perspective of the grand purpose of the war)? How do we strive to gradually make China’s overall periphery strategy and practice inherently unitary and completely consistent in an appropriate time? These are major questions we must think over and plan for. Secondly, as a major country and world power in the making, China sooner or later has to declare its fundamental attitude towards Japan: Under what circumstances could Japan become a “normal country” China can accept? In the mean time, what a strong and great China the Japanese as a nation can anticipate? Becoming aware of and carefully deliberating on such questions will surely be conducive to China’s rejuvenating and becoming a truly great power. 

Shi Yinhong is a professor at the School of International Relations: Renmin University of China.


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