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Foreign Policy

What Next for China-Japan Security Ties?

Sep 30, 2022
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan fell on Sept. 29. Over the past half-century, the two countries have witnessed substantial progress in their bilateral ties in politics, economy, culture and education. However, challenges and difficulties have long existed. Ushering in the new century, in particular, China and Japan deepened their economic interdependence, but it seems they still have a long way to go to build political trust, especially in the security realm.

Identifying China as one of its main national security concerns, Japan has frequently warned of escalating threats deriving from maritime security, the Taiwan question and nuclear weapons, among other issues. Japan continues to upgrade its defense capacity and to reinforce its alliance with the U.S. to strengthen military deterrence. And it is developing massive offensive military capacity, including deploying long-range missiles, raising defense spending to 2 percent of its GDP and considering interfering in Taiwan, which makes China wonder whether it is returning to its old path of military power building.

Fifty years ago, security was not a core issue. But now, managing the risks in bilateral security relations has become a priority. On the occasion of the 50th anniversary, we need to mull over how to shape China-Japan security ties in the new era.

First of all, we should seek truth from facts. That’s the most fundamental spirit of the normalization of diplomatic ties. And the biggest fact in China-Japan ties is that they are neighbors. Back in 1972, a keen belief in developing neighborly relations could be felt strongly throughout the joint statement that normalized diplomatic relations — barely over 1,000 words. The basic fact that the two are neighbors should never be forgotten or detached from any field, including security. China-Japan relations cannot be defined by competition, let alone confrontation; otherwise, many issues will be “securitized,” which is completely unnecessary.

For instance, amid the blustering rhetoric that “Taiwan’s crisis is Japan’s crisis,” Okinawa is viewed as a war front, and military logic overrides all other logic. However, located halfway between the East China Sea and the Western Pacific, Okinawa can play a role — either as a regional logistics center or a tourist attraction — far more than as a military base. In this way, the prefecture can bring more security to Japan in addition to developing itself.

Second, we should get beyond the old security concept that starts with military deterrence. In recent years, “deterrence” has repeatedly appeared in the security speeches of Japanese politicians, as well as in media discourse. The target is undoubtedly China, on grounds that China’s military strength has grown rapidly over the past 30 years and China-Japan territorial disputes have posed risks to the latter’s peripheral security. Under the deterrence-based security concept, stronger measures are needed to prevent a military conflict, or even a war, from happening between the two sides, because weak deterrence will cause one side to use force.

In the field of security, deterrence has always been a crucial concept. It has its rationale. Nonetheless, Cold War history has proved that a security viewpoint that relies too much on deterrence takes an imaginary enemy as a given, which would not help a country gain national security but further accentuate misconceptions and eventually lead to the paradox of collective insecurity.

Fifty years ago, China and Japan announced an end to their abnormal state of relations. In no way should they seek an “abnormal stability” based on military deterrence. China should maintain strategic patience even in the face of Japan’s evolving deterrence discourse. It should resist the impulse to use deterrence against deterrence, and proceed in the right direction. This means that China-Japan security ties need a new security concept.

Third, China-Japan security relations in the new era should be founded on wider and deeper social interaction and understanding. A lot of changes have been made to Japan’s security policies over the years, but it should be noted that reactions from Japanese society to these changes are complicated and multifaceted. For example, tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets to oppose a bill that would allow the Japanese military to fight overseas. There were more objections to the country’s interest in developing the ability to attack enemy bases. Moreover, there have been voices within Japan’s economic circles against lawmakers’ passing an act promoting economic security.

As long as the public doesn’t believe that military deterrence can bring security, the old security concept will not likely regain ground. China and Japan are neighbors and also the world’s second- and third-largest economies, and they enjoy close socioeconomic ties. The more they open up to each other, the better they can build a social foundation for new bilateral security relations. 

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