Now Japan’s new defense minister Yasuo Ichikawa, who was appointed by Noda, has called for improving relations with China. While careful to frame his suggestion within the context of the U.S.-Japan alliance, Ichikawa’s call may spur debate over whether Japan is in danger of accommodating China in order to get a positive response. If the Noda government relinquishes its claim to the joint exploration of the seabed around the Senkakus, hesitates to modernize Japan’s military and cuts back on missile defense activities, a conservative backlash could emerge, heightened by perceived regional impressions that Japan is weakening relative to China.
By any accounting, it makes sense for both sides to improve relations even though neither is really willing to compromise on key issues. Needlessly antagonizing each other is a lose-lose situation, yet few in Tokyo have much confidence that they will be able to narrow the gap with Beijing. While acknowledging the depth of their economic interdependence, many Japanese are becoming convinced that China’s interests threaten Japan’s long-term security. One reason to attempt to find some common ground, however, is the looming leadership change in China scheduled for 2012. By attempting to create a more positive environment now, Noda and Japanese foreign minister Koichiro Gemba may hope to have a tailwind when starting to work with Xi Jinping. Xi visited Japan in December 2009, yet his visit was marred by controversy that a rushed meeting with Emperor Hirohito showed Japan’s over-eagerness to play up to China’s leader-in-waiting.
For now, there has been no substantial follow-on from Ichikawa’s suggestion. Like his American counterparts, he hopes to increase military-to-military ties, in part through officer exchanges. However, given the bad feelings of the past year, there is little reason to think that Tokyo will rush into any actions that seem subservient to Beijing. Rather, Ichikawa has hit a moderate note, stressing that Japan’s alliance with the United States gives it the confidence to seek the right balance with China. The hard part, of course, will be maintaining that positive tone and actually accomplishing something.
The two sides might do well to discuss trade and the other economic issues that tie them together rather than try to tackle security concerns first. Continuing to talk about a China-Japan free-trade agreement may help spur some debate in Tokyo about economic reform and promote understanding in both countries of how much each depends on the other. Finding common ground on economic issues may be the way to increase confidence in the working relationship and pave the way for tackling far more sensitive subjects. It will be much harder to erase decades of mistrust in the military sphere, given China’s continuing arms buildup and Japanese concern about the increased presence—if not assertiveness—of the PLA Navy. Absent another crisis like that over the Senkakus, the two will likely muddle through without significantly improving relations. Given that seemingly irreducible chasm, the smart money will be on a strained, yet controlled, Sino-Japanese relationship for the foreseeable future.
Michael Auslin is a resident scholar in Asian studies and the director of Japan Studies at the American Enterprise Institute.