Sino-Japanese relations have been deteriorating since the outbreak of the territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in September 2012, triggered by the Japanese government’s attempt to change the island’s property status from private to government-owned. Unfortunately, the incident was explained and described in both the Japanese and Chinese media using the concept of “nationalization” (“guoyouhua” in Chinese), which then led to substantial misunderstandings regarding the islands, which China claims but which are effectively controlled by Japan.
Two years after the dispute began, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met during the Beijing APEC summit in the autumn of 2014 for the first time since the incident. The summit meeting excited high expectations that the tangled relationship would soon return to normal. However, even today, the bilateral relationship has been quite slow to recover compared with past experiences between the two countries.
In the early 2000s, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni War Shrine worsened bilateral relations. But following Koizumi’s resignation and Prime Minister Abe’s visit to Beijing (during his first short-lived term, 2006–07) and his commitment to the concept of “Mutually Beneficial Relationship based on Common Strategic Interests,” relations between the two countries quickly recovered. After that, annual mutual official visits were reinstated, which finally led to President Hu Jintao’s state visit to Japan in 2008.
Japan’s and China’s Views
Today, although the worst seems to be over, the bilateral relationship remains deadlocked. From Japan’s point of view, the worries stem largely from growing security concerns. Since the rise of tensions concerning the islands, Chinese coastguard ships have begun to enter Japan’s territorial waters with astonishing regularity. Although the Chinese vessels’ intrusions into territorial waters had begun several years before the “nationalization,” the Chinese government’s aggressive actions over the disputed islands was a new phenomenon.
Beijing also declared an ADIZ (Air Defense Identification Zone) over the islands in the autumn of 2013, when diplomatic officials on both sides were expecting the relationship to recover. Because of their geographical proximity, ordinary Japanese people became keenly aware of the rapid increase of the PLA’s military budget and the expansion of Chinese naval and air force activity. Japanese public sentiment towards China is at a historic low.
Economic interdependence has always been and continues to be a key factor in stabilizing bilateral relations. For Japanese businesses in sectors such as the car manufacturing industry, the huge Chinese market is still a source of attraction. On the other hand, the recent rapid rise of labor costs has pushed many companies to seek cheaper manufacturing bases outside China. Japanese direct investment in China began to decline in 2013, but mainly for economic rather than political reasons.
Prime Minister Abe’s conservative political views and behavior have irritated China. His visit to the Yasukuni Shrine immediately after the PLA’s declaration of the ADIZ caused a setback in relations. The Japanese government’s recent bold expression of its concern over the South China Sea issue by stressing the rule of law also angered China. Moreover, the power balance between the two countries has largely shifted towards China.
Japan’s increasing dependence on the US alliance makes China perceive Japan as just a dependent function of China’s policy toward the US. From Beijing’s realistic point of view, Japan’s disobedience in a Sinocentric East Asian world order makes it appear that Japan is still seeking regional rivalry with China even though its power has largely declined. Under such circumstances, do Sino-Japanese relations have any hope of improvement in the near future?
Trump and Sino-Japanese Relations
The most important factor in international relations that affects the Japan–China relationship is, of course, US President Donald Trump’s new policy towards China. The Trump administration’s East Asia policy, especially Trump’s view toward this region, has not yet been clearly formulated. During his campaign, Trump criticized Japan for not having borne enough of the financial burden associated with the US military bases in Japan. He went even further to say that Japan should protect itself by having nuclear weapons. However, neither the Japanese government nor neighboring countries want a rapid increase in Japan’s military budget or nuclearization, since this would eventually destabilize the region. But, after Abe’s visit to Washington, preceded by US Secretary of Defense Mattis’ visit to Tokyo in February this year, these concerns have relaxed to some extent.
It seems that at the moment, in the absence of severe tensions with the US, China will not adopt a strategic balancing rapprochement toward Japan.
Although we still must wait a while to see President Trump’s comprehensive strategy towards East Asia, so far it looks like a return to a more traditional US foreign and security policy. At the meeting between Trump and Abe, President Trump confirmed continued US commitment to the fact that the US–Japan security treaty covers the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Although Japan must expect a much tougher trade policy from the US, the administration seems to have returned to a realistic policy in the security arena.
As for Trump’s policy towards China, during his campaign he seemed to be unusually tough on China but soft on Russia, but the Chinese government has rightly refrained from overreacting. Trump’s administration might take a much tougher stance against Beijing over the South China Sea issue or North Korean nuclear development as compared with his predecessor Obama, but so far, the relationship seems to be going back to a rather more moderate track than had been expected.
Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping
There is also continuity in that Prime Minster Abe and President Xi will hold their posts for the foreseeable future. Although President Xi, as the Communist Party chairman, will this autumn host the National Party Congress held every five years, he still has one more term — another five years. During his first term, Xi’s foreign policy has been shaped by a mixture of populism and nationalism, in pursuit of big power diplomacy. As opposed to former President Hu Jintao, Xi Jinping seems to be emphasizing patriotic education, which has led to the attitude of the domestic media and public sentiment being less favorable toward Japan.
In Japan, Abe’s premiership term is already unusually long by Japanese standards. His is now one of the longest-lasting faces among the G7 summit leaders. Although Abe is currently struggling to shake off the right-wing school scandal, he still enjoys high approval ratings among the public. His high levels of public support come mainly not from his conservative political views but from his pro-growth economic policy.
A Strained but Stable Relationship
Under such circumstances, Sino-Japanese relationships might not improve very soon. In the past, it has often been pointed out that within the US-China-Japan triangular relationship, China tends to avoid having a negative relationship with the other two at the same time. It seems that at the moment, in the absence of severe tensions with the US, China will not adopt a strategic balancing rapprochement toward Japan. However, by closely observing recent developments in bilateral relations, China also seems to be seeking a stable relationship with Japan. On the occasions of the G20 summit in Hangzhou in September 2016, and also the APEC summit in Lima in November 2016, short bilateral meetings between Xi and Abe took place for the first time in the previous eighteen months.
Also, on a working level, both countries held security dialogues as well as a deputy foreign ministerial dialogue in November 2016. Both sides, as we see, are keenly aware of the importance of crisis management in preparing for the worst. Whether political circumstances are good or not, there is a consensus between the two leaders that, at the very least, maintaining a stable and predictable relationship is vital for their national interests. In this term, the relationship is expected to continue to be strained and development will be slow, but the overall relationship will remain stable — a stability we should view positively given the levels of uncertainty in today’s world.