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How to normalise Sino-Japanese defence ties

Tensions between Japan and China in recent years have led many to argue that Sino-Japanese relations have entered a period of enduring rivalry, and that a Sino-Japanese military conflict is likely in the near future. But, looking back at post-war history, the current state of relations is rather exceptional.

China Maritime Surveillance and the Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in 2013. After Japan nationalised the islands in 2012, defence exchanges between the two countries were suspended entirely. Photo: Reuters

China Maritime Surveillance and the Japan Coast Guard vessels near the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea in 2013. After Japan nationalised the islands in 2012, defence exchanges between the two countries were suspended entirely. Photo: Reuters

Tensions between Japan and China in recent years have led many to argue that Sino-Japanese relations have entered a period of enduring rivalry, and that a Sino-Japanese military conflict is likely in the near future. But, looking back at post-war history, the current state of relations is rather exceptional.

Since the end of the Cold War, Tokyo and Beijing have steadily developed their defence and security cooperation in addition to maintaining their long-term economic and political partnership.

The continued efforts to sustain and advance this security cooperation suggest that, despite growing Sino-Japanese strategic rivalry, defence relations could get back on track if they are carefully managed by policymakers of both countries.

Defence exchanges between the two nations began in the mid-1990s. Both countries agreed to promote confidence-building measures or practical cooperation through reciprocal visits of high-ranking military officials, regular exchanges between members of military academic institutions and naval port visits.

This does not mean that there were no political and security problems between Tokyo and Beijing during this time. The National People’s Congress’ passing of the Law on the Territorial Sea and Contiguous Zone including the Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in 1992 and its series of nuclear tests from 1995 to 1996 during the Taiwan election campaign raised tensions. And former Japanese Prime Minister Ryutaro Hashimoto’s 1996 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the souls of Japan’s war dead, including 14 Class-A war criminals, provoked condemnation in China.

During the 2000s, bilateral relations between Tokyo and Beijing were described as “politically cold, but economically warm”. While their trade relations continued to grow, political controversies continued, including more Yasukuni visits and massive anti-Japan protests in China.

Despite these difficulties, or perhaps because of them, Tokyo and Beijing have always sought a pragmatic way to stabilise relations. In February 2001, both countries agreed to provide prior notification before conducting oceanic research activities in the other’s claimed exclusive economic zone — though China later failed to honour this agreement. In April 2007, the two nations also announced that they would jointly create a maritime communication mechanism to prevent an unexpected accident at sea.

One of the most important developments in the post-Cold War era was that both countries no longer relied on cooperation based on “neighbourly friendship”, sustained by personal relations between politicians or economists. They instead sought to establish more mature relations by expanding bilateral, regional and global cooperation.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first “ice-breaking visit” to Beijing in October 2006 was followed by several positive developments, including reciprocal naval port visits, joint training for search-and-rescue missions, and expanded dialogue between the respective militaries. After the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the Chinese government even requested an aid airlift by the Japanese Self-Defense Forces — although China later withdrew that request after massive protests from the public.

Until just before the Senkaku incident in September 2010, when two Chinese and Japanese boats collided in disputed waters, the Sino-Japanese defence and security relationship was relatively good. But the Senkaku incident suddenly changed the cooperative framework between Tokyo and Beijing. And after Japan’s nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012, Japan-China defence exchanges were suspended entirely.

But, even after all that, both sides sought to resume dialogue, although such efforts were often interrupted by domestic problems.

In Japan, the weak governance of the Democratic Party of Japan administration, including its frequent, rapid changes of Prime Minister, made it difficult to continue a sustainable dialogue with China. In China, Mr Xi Jinping’s accession to power in 2012 caused a power struggle that made it difficult for Chinese leaders to take a “soft” approach towards Japan.

As President Xi consolidated power, and as Mr Abe’s new Liberal Democratic Party government stabilised Japanese politics, China moved to resume the dialogue. In November last year, a Japan-China leaders’ meeting was held for the first time since 2012 alongside the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing.

ENGAGING AND HEDGING

So how can Tokyo keep up the momentum for better Japan-China relations?

First and foremost, both nations need to put the recent maritime disputes into a broader context, as they constitute only one part of the overall relationship. Cooperation — even if symbolic — could help generate a friendlier atmosphere, which is necessary to promote more substantial bilateral cooperation.

It is also essential for Japan to maintain and enhance credible deterrence capabilities as a foundation for confidence-building measures with China. Enhancing the United States-Japan alliance is of particular importance. The revised US-Japan defence guidelines strengthen US involvement in regional contingencies, including in a so-called “grey-zone dispute” — that is, an infringement that does not amount to a full-blown armed attack. This will send a clear signal to China that any provocation in the East China Sea could potentially invite US military involvement.

At the same time, Tokyo should continue to explain to Beijing that the revised US-Japan defence guidelines do not intend to change the status quo by force, nor change Japan’s exclusively defence-oriented posture. Tokyo should also keep persuading Beijing to refrain from provocative behaviour, including sending ships to Japanese territorial waters or establishing artificial islands in the South China Sea.

After all, it is only a continuous mixture of engagement and hedging that can help to normalise Sino-Japanese defence relations, and therefore ensure future stability in the Asia-Pacific. EAST ASIA FORUM

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Tomohiko Satake is a senior research fellow at the National Institute of Defence Studies, Tokyo.

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