The World’s Most Dangerous Rivalry: China and Japan

The East China Sea—thanks to tensions between China and Japan—can accurately be described as the most dangerous place on the entire planet. Yet, writings in China suggest compromise is certainly possible. 

Editor’s Note: The following is part two of a new occasional series named “Dragon Eye” which seeks insight and analysis from Chinese writings on world affairs. Part one of the series, “What Does China Really Think About the Ukraine Crisis?” can be found here.

The East China Seathanks to tensions between China and Japan—can accurately be described as the most dangerous place on the entire planet.  It is entirely conceivable that one of the many coast guard vessels on either side patrolling the contested islets could suddenly come under fire or, more likely still, become severely damaged in a bumping incident (of the type that has occurred recently in the South China Sea).  In such circumstances, the steps from gun fire to exchanging volleys of anti-ship missiles between the fleets, to theater wide attacks on major bases, to all out global war could be all too abrupt.

Hollywood, which is perennially looking for apocalyptic scenarios, may want to examine contemporary China-Japan relations for developing next summer’s blockbuster suspense film.  Thankfully, however, some momentum appears to be building to arrest the downward spiral in this extremely crucial bilateral relationship.  Recent low key diplomatic steps are undergirded by some reasonable voices that have bravely stepped forward in the Chinese foreign policy debate to try to reign in the two East Asian powers on the precipice.

China-Japan relations have seemed to be in a death spiral since a 2010 ‘trawler incident’ interrupted a positive dynamic in relations that had occurred during 2007-2009.  Since that time, the relationship has been rocked by China’s move to establish full time maritime patrols in the vicinity of the contested islets, as well as the occasional air patrol and even a Chinese drone sortie. That alteration to the status quo came in response to Tokyo’s purchase of the islands in September 2012.  Just over a year later, Beijing upped the ante again by declaring an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea and the disputed islets, to which Washington promptly responded by sending American bombers to fly through (and thus challenge) the new Chinese ADIZ.  2014 has already witnessed at least two dangerous encounters between Chinese and Japanese military aircraft.  Similar incidents are also occurring with American aircraft as well.

A hint of an opening is now quite visible, however.  It is noteworthy that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not himself visit the Yasakuni Shrine on August 15 this year.  In mid-September, a trilateral conference bringing together senior diplomats from Japan, China and South Korea went ahead in Seoul.  Just days ago in New York, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida held a long overdue informal meeting on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly meeting.  Undoubtedly, these movements are partly related to an eagerness to improve the bilateral relationship ahead of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing for the November APEC Conference.

There is some limited evidence of ferment in Beijing’s approach to Tokyo.   A Chinese-language article in the spring issue of 日本学刊 [Japan Studies] by Renmin University Professor Shi Yinhong offers a glimpse of a possible new approach in the making.  True, Shi has long been known as a maverick thinker among Beijing’s foreign policy elite, but as the lead paper in this critical publication of the prestigious Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, it seems this particular article could merit some close attention.

At the outset, the paper sets a rather strident and even hawkish tone.  The title suggests the article will investigate the impact of Tokyo’s “right deviation” on China-Japan ties.  Shi observes that Japan’s strategy is essentially premised on taking China as its “adversary.”  He evinces concern over Japan’s recent outreach to Southeast Asian countries.  He concludes, “It is now completely obvious that Japan is using the sovereignty dispute to obstruct the dynamism of China’s development process.” He does not challenge, but rather embraces the current doctrine of “not seeking incidents, but not fearing them either …”  He also describes US security guarantees to Japan as “ever more hollow.”