A Coming Japan-China Rapprochement?

There are bumps ahead, but things can improve soon.

On August 15, the spotlight will be on Japan again as another year passes on the anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender during World War II. More specifically, officials in China and South Korea will train a close eye to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to see if he chooses to visit Yasukuni shrine—which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead from a wide range of conflicts from the Satsuma rebellion to World War II. According to most reports, it appears that Abe has already dismissed the idea of visiting Yasukuni on August 15th and has privately sought assurances, despite his public remarks in the Diet, from senior cabinet officials—including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida—that they also refrain from making a public visit. The gesture is obviously aimed at containing any potential fallout that would further inflame ties with China and South Korea, as well as a potential censure from Washington behind the scenes.

If Abe visits Yasukuni this month, there is no doubt that it would create temporary pandemonium across the fragile diplomatic landscape in East Asia. But there is another looming anniversary that has a stronger potential to upend the shaky equilibrium currently staked between Tokyo and Beijing. September 11, 2013 will mark the one year anniversary of the date when the Japanese government, then led by former prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, finalized its purchase of the Senkaku islands (referred to as the Diaoyu by China). Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing in the East China Sea have simmered since that point with periodic spikes, such as China’s dangerous radar-lock of a Japanese destroyer last January.

Yet while serious conflict in the East China Sea has been avoided thus far, both sides will need to remain vigilant to the inevitable posturing and nongovernmental interference that will come in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the purchase. For example, there are already reports that a group of Hong Kong activists (the same group that approached the islands last year) plan on making an attempt to land on the Senkaku/Diaoyu on September 11. While such a landing could be intercepted by the Japanese Coast Guard, Tokyo will need to calibrate its use of force to ensure conflict—either diplomatic or a tussle with Chinese ships—is avoided. Similarly, Japan will need to contain its own activists, who will likely stage demonstrations and potentially an attempted landing on the islands.

Commentary this summer largely focused on negatives of the Japan-China relationship including: the continuous diplomatic barbs over Chinese incursions around Japan’s administered territory in the East China Sea; the lack of real traction for a leaders’ summit between Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping; the unveiling of Japan’s massive helicopter-carrier—the Izumoearlier this month along; new defense plans for a development of amphibious capabilities for the JMSDF in order to defend “remote islands;” and the hopelessness created by Abe’s new mandate after his significant win in the upper-house election last month. Indeed the New York Times warned Abe on “overheated rhetoric towards China” and the South China Morning Post lamented that his victory was “so big there are suspicions he will lose interest in difficult economic reforms and pursue his nationalist agenda instead.”

However on the sidelines of such alarmism is some sensible analysis recognizing that Abe can’t simply abandon his economic reforms or switch gears towards a hawkish approach on China. Jeffrey Hornung, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, wrote last month before the election: “Everyone is expecting that after this month’s election, when the Liberal Democratic Party is expected to win big, the “real Abe” or “true Abe” will finally show his face. That is usually taken by the media to mean he will have full authority to pursue a rabid nationalist agenda that will poke China and South Korea in the eyes. What is being argued here is that Abe has other pressing challenges that are more important, so he will be forced to go slow on his agenda or risk his survival as premier.” Tobias Harris also recently noted in the National Interest, “It would appear that Abe is finally in a position to leave his mark on Japan. The reality, however, is more complicated. Abe may be in control of the government, but he is hemmed in in every direction, and his government rests on a narrow foundation.”