Are Japan–China relations sweetening or souring?

Author: Akio Takahara, The University of Tokyo

Are Japan–China relations on a collision course? The two thorny issues between Japan and China are history and security. But despite these problems, there is a case for cautious optimism for the time being.

Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to review People's Liberation Army troops from a car during a military parade to mark the 70th anniversary of Japan's surrender during World War II. (Photo: AAP).

2015 marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s remorseful anniversary statement was received with scepticism in China, while President Xi Jinping’s statement at the commemorative military parade did not touch on post-war efforts for cooperation and reconciliation at all. Chinese patrol boats continue to intrude into the territorial waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands three times a month.

Meanwhile, the Japanese Diet is discussing new security legislations that would allow Japan to implement its right of collective self-defence. The government hopes this will strengthen its alliance with the United States and its security ties with other friendly countries, but the move has been met with concern in China. Abe also did not visit China to commemorate the end of WWII on 3 September.

Despite all these events, it seems the two countries have not lost the momentum to improve their relations. But how long is it going to last?

Simply put, the momentum should continue while Xi stays firmly at the helm. The four factors that brought about the rapprochement between the two countries since 2014 have not been lost.

First, although strategic competition is intensifying due to China’s rapid military build-up and active maritime advancement, neither of the two countries wishes to go to war. In May and June 2014, there were two consecutive near-miss incidents between military aircraft over the East China Sea. One such incident would have been concerning enough, but to have two near-miss incidents was very alarming indeed. Both Japan and China realised that they must resume active dialogue to avoid any accidents that would escalate the situation.

Second, China’s economic slowdown is a reality and many localities are suffering from accumulated bad loans and fiscal deficit. Japan remains an important economic partner for China, especially in these times of need. But after Japan nationalised the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in 2012, violent anti-Japanese demonstrations led to Japanese businesses being destroyed, burned and looted. It was estimated that the damage to Japanese businesses in China amounted to 10 billion yen (US$80 million). The Chinese leadership realised that tension in the political relationship was one factor discouraging Japanese enterprises from investing in China.

Third, China is facing difficulties promoting its ‘new type of major country relations’ with the United States. The two countries agree to cooperate and expand their mutual interests in economic, environmental and other areas, but strategic competition is intensifying in the Western Pacific and extending into areas such as cyberspace and space. The tense relations with the US helped prompt China to refocus on neighbourhood diplomacy and ‘rebalance’ toward Japan.

Fourth, Xi Jinping has consolidated his domestic power base through his anti-corruption campaign and by heading newly established policy-making institutions. He has no reason to worry about domestic criticism if he adjusts his attitude towards Japan. While a ‘soft’ policy toward Japan has traditionally been an easy target for political rivals to criticise the Party leadership, Xi has already established his power and authority, and his image of a tough leader.

All the above factors still remain in place. The two governments continue to seek the next opportunity for their leaders to meet. But there are some signs that promoting relations further will not be an easy process.

For example, the Chinese media continues to bitterly criticise Abe. When Xinhua News reported Abe’s April 2015 visit to the United States, it headlined with ‘ridiculous performance’, even though the event taking place only a few days after Abe’s second, amicable meeting with Xi in Indonesia. In June, Abe sent a goodwill message to the Chinese people in an interview with Hong Kong-based Phoenix TV, but this was treated extremely lightly in the mainland media. This move was counterproductive diplomatically. Abe’s intention was to reciprocate Xi’s unprecedented, friendly message to a delegation of over 3000 Japanese at a convention in Beijing in May.

At the World Peace Forum in Beijing in late June, Foreign Minister Wang Yi ignored questions on what measures his ministry was preparing to consolidate the new, cooperative phase in Japan–China relations. Instead, he stressed that the fundamental problem in the bilateral relationship was that many Japanese could not psychologically accept China’s rise as a power. It sounded like China’s Japan expert did not want to say anything that could invite internal critique.

Do these events signify that criticism of Xi’s Japan policy is increasing? Possibly. A Xinhua article on 25 August demanded that the Japanese Emperor apologise for the war, adding suspicion to this claim. But the provocation had an impact, inviting Japanese Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga to comment that the article was utterly undesirable and could throw cold water on otherwise improving Japan–China relations.

Perhaps a power struggle is intensifying in China. Past experiences suggest that anonymous attacks against Japan are often signs of defiance against the Chinese leadership. But we should not be misled by them. Currently, the four factors underpinning Japan–China rapprochement are still in place. We should keep an eye on the fourth factor: Chinese domestic politics, especially as further economic downturn could have a destabilising effect. But, for now, it seems that Xi stands firmly at the helm and has decided to improve ties with Japan.

Akio Takahara is a professor in the Faculty of Law at The University of Tokyo.

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Are Japan–China relations sweetening or souring?