The Buzz

Explained: Why China and Japan Simply Don't Trust Each Other

At the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit late last year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping began to restore their nations’ relations, attempting to overcome differences over islands in the East China Sea. Again this year, the leaders of Asia’s two largest powers met at the Bandung Conference, demonstrating a slightly more relaxed and encouraging demeanor, suggesting that the maritime talks between their two governments were bearing some fruit. But it is not the territorial dispute itself that threatens improvement in the Japan-China relationship; it is their deep skepticism of each other’s ambitions in the region.

Chinese officials have not been shy in suggesting that the changing balance of power between their nation and Japan is the root cause of their diplomatic difficulty. The most recent statement of China’s perception of the change in regional influence comes from Foreign Minister Wang Yi. After his speech at Beijing’s World Peace Forum last week, China’s foreign minister was asked about the prospects for Japan-China relations, and Xinhua quoted him as follows: “the crux of China-Japan relations is whether Japan can sincerely accept and welcome China’s revival and rise.” Wang was further quoted as saying, “China’s development has brought important benefit to Japan, but Japan is not fully prepared in its mindset for an increasingly powerful China.” The solution, from Wang’s perspective, is simply that the Japanese have to accept China’s growing power.

Wang is not off the mark about Japan’s concerns about Chinese ambitions, and this too was amply demonstrated last week in Tokyo. Japan’s chief of the Joint Staff of the Self Defense Force, Admiral Katsutoshi Kawano agreed to an interview with the Wall Street Journal, and openly acknowledged his concerns about China’s behavior in the South China Sea. Admiral Kawano noted that China’s program of island building in the disputed islands of the South China Sea created serious concerns for Japan because of its dependence on the sea lanes through the Malacca Straits. “Of course, the area is of the utmost importance for Japanese security,” he said. “We don’t have any plans to conduct surveillance in the South China Sea currently but depending on the situation, I think there is a chance we could consider doing so.” In Tokyo, there is a profound sense that China could be positioning itself to challenge Japan’s strategic interests, and a new willingness to work closely with others to improve maritime stability.

Both perceptions are important, but they should not prevent leaders on both sides from recognizing the need for bolder diplomacy in the service of Japan-China cooperation in Asia. If China simply wishes for others to accept its rise, then it will be disappointed. As I argue in my new book, Intimate Rivals, the pace and scope of change being felt in Japan by the increasing impact of a transforming China have challenged successive governments in Tokyo. Granted, not all Japanese support an increased role for their military, but the majority of Japanese worry about how effective their government is and will be in protecting their interests —economic, maritime, and diplomatic— in the face of a far more assertive China.

Beijing should not sit back and wait for acceptance; it should actively seek to find ways of ensuring that its interests will not challenge and weaken those of its neighbors, including Japan. Japanese worries about Chinese behavior, especially in its expansive maritime claims of late, are important indicators of just how close Beijing is coming to pushing Japan into a far more active regional military role. For the past seventy years, Japanese leaders – virtually all of whom were conservatives, by the way – were comfortable that their security and their nation’s prosperity were not challenged in Asia. Even Washington seemed unsuccessful in fundamentally altering Tokyo’s preference for imposing limits, both in terms of capabilities and in geographical range, on its Self Defense Force.

Geostrategic change creates deep worry – not only about the policy challenges of the day but also about the perceptions of what is to come. Instead of insisting that Tokyo acknowledge its new power, Beijing would be better served by demonstrating what Foreign Minister Wang says it wants to do with it: creating a foundation for regional stability and peace. Open and free sea lanes are, of course, in the interests of all Asian nations, including China’s. A collaborative approach to ensuring they remain open to all would go a long way to ensuring the peace that Foreign Minister Wang so eloquently spoke of in his speech at last week’s forum. Building bases on islands close to those vital sea lanes will only cause others to fear China, and think the worst of its ultimate ambitions.

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