China and Japan's Standoff in the East China Sea: It Could Get Very Ugly

November 25, 2014 Topic: Foreign PolicyMilitary StrategyDiplomacy Region: ChinaJapan

China and Japan's Standoff in the East China Sea: It Could Get Very Ugly

"Having looked so weak in Beijing, Abe may now actually be less able to compromise with a Xi Jinping who, in any case, gave no hint that there was wiggle room for altering Chinese behavior in the East China Sea." 

Among the more prominent narratives to have come out of the APEC Summit in Beijing was one of China and Japan agreeing to “break the ice” after years of tense relations. Observers noted that between the personal meetings and the “joint statement” released just days beforehand, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had finally found common ground, even if it was based on an agreement to disagree. Such characterizations of these developments, however, gloss over what actually occurred and obscure China’s skillful political jockeying and resultant diplomatic victories. The so-called “joint statement” far from reflected any real agreement (including on what they disagreed about), with each side issuing competing English interpretations, while the ballyhooed handshake between the leaders of the two countries provided a public venue to exhibit just who held the upper hand in the relationship.

The Joint Statement That Wasn’t

In the days leading up to the APEC summit, China’s state councilor Yang Jiechi and Japan’s national security advisor Shotaro Yachi met in Beijing to negotiate a joint statement that would pave the way for a Xi-Abe meeting on the sidelines. China had previously insisted upon two preconditions before such a meeting could occur: Japan had to acknowledge that a dispute existed over the Senkaku (or Diaoyu, as the Chinese call them) Islands; and Abe had to promise to abstain from any additional visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which enshrines Japan’s war dead, including fourteen Class-A war criminals. The negotiations resulted, supposedly, in an agreement on four principles upon which Sino-Japanese relations could finally proceed. Yet, no sooner had the ink dried on the announcement, than was each side claiming it had compromised on nothing and releasing distinctly different translations of the agreement.

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Regarding the territorial row, the Japanese statement made no mention of any other country’s claim or dispute regarding the Senkaku Islands. Instead, it simply noted that both sides recognized that “different views” existed on the “tense situations” in the waters of the East China Sea. This remained consistent with Japan’s policy of denying the existence of competing territorial claims to the islands and instead drawing attention to China’s aggressive maritime behavior in the East China Sea. The Chinese version, on the other hand, claimed that both sides acknowledged the “different positions” regarding the tensions over the “Diaoyu Islands,” as well as over the waters surrounding them. Thus, the Chinese could claim that the Japanese had finally changed tack on their long-held policy and had given in to the first of their preconditions for any summit-level meeting.

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On the issue of Abe’s visits to Yasukuni and Japan’s treatment of its wartime past, no direct mention of them appeared in either statement, although there was an acknowledgement of “political difficulties” in the Japanese statement and “political obstacles” in the Chinese one. Here, the differences between the two statements were less severe, though still notable, and come down to the use of “would” versus “have,” respectively, when discussing the overcoming of their disputes. In other words, the Japanese statement is limited in nature, noting that these difficulties would be overcome, though perhaps not yet. The Chinese statement, on the other hand, claims far more, suggesting the two countries have already agreed in some respects on how to resolve the obstacles.

Unfortunately for Japan, however, what might have seemed like a pragmatic approach toward clearing the path for a meeting between the two leaders handed Xi a powerful victory on two fronts. Domestically, he can shore up support for his leadership from the Chinese public, claiming that he was able to extract an acknowledgement from Japan regarding China’s claims to the disputed islands. Indeed, following the release of the statements, an editorial in the state-controlled Global Times noted, “Now that Japan has agreed to sit down with China to talk about crisis management, it is equal to admitting that the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands’ sovereignty have become the new reality.” And, in subsequent negotiations touching on territorial issues, China will insist that any resolutions be premised on Japan’s acceptance of the Chinese understanding of the November 7 “joint” statement, a situation that, at the very least, will require Japanese negotiators to expend considerable energy clarifying.

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The Chinese can likewise claim a diplomatic success on the “history” issue as well, which ironically paves the way for additional tensions. Japanese government leaders, if not the prime minister himself, will undoubtedly visit Yasukuni again, perhaps even in the coming weeks. When they do so, Beijing will express outrage not only over their lack of repentance for actions dating to World War II, but for violating the new bilateral agreement. In this way, the statement will become an additional wedge driving Japan and China apart, rather than a new foundation upon which to build a more stable relationship.

The Handshake Heard Round the World

If the problematic dual statements marked the only real loss Japan suffered in the process of securing Abe’s coveted meeting with Xi, then perhaps one could deem them merely tactical setbacks offset by strategic gains. Yet, like the statements, the meeting can hardly be called a success for the Japanese.

There was certainly no expectation for a grand bargain to emerge or for Abe and Xi to come to a meeting of the minds, but the hope had been that a formal sit-down would move the bilateral relationship back to firmer footing. If anything, however, Xi emerged appearing to be the stronger of the two leaders, a troubling development as such perceived imbalances in Sino-Japanese dynamics are often destabilizing.

What went wrong? Ahead of the meeting, Xi deftly maneuvered Abe into the position of supplicant. In recent months, Abe had repeatedly stated his desire for a face-to-face with Xi, with his government engaged in obvious lobbying to secure it. The Chinese leadership never evinced any such similar desire, ensuring Xi was in a position to grant or deny the Japanese request.

Xi, of course, ultimately approved the meeting, but took pains to give the appearance that he had deigned to meet with Abe, rather than welcomed such an encounter. Abe’s much-sought-after handshake was certainly not worth the trouble. With cameras flashing and video rolling, Abe did all of the talking as he took the hand of Xi, who turned away while Abe was still speaking, put on his best “I-don’t-want-to-be-here” face for the cameras, and refused to make eye contact with the Japanese leader once the handshake was concluded. It was a juvenile performance for the paramount leader of the world’s biggest country and, perhaps, in acting like an adult, Abe can claim he was the bigger man. But the fact is that Abe was embarrassed on the world stage by his purported equal.

Xi, likewise, ensured that Abe would play the role of petitioner in their private meeting. It was no coincidence that in the weeks leading up to the APEC summit, and with a potential meeting in the works, Chinese poachers stepped up their illegal harvesting of protected coral in uncontested Japanese waters. As reported by the Wall Street Journal, Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida described a fleet of over 200 Chinese ships sailing in or near Japanese waters in late October. A Coast Guard spokesman noted that the number of arrests that month was “far from average.”

And so, when the Japanese prime minister got his one-on-one with his Chinese counterpart, Abe also had to ask Xi for help putting a stop to the illegal poaching operations. Much has been made of the fact that the two leaders spent twenty-five minutes together, but that is not much time to discuss heated territorial disputes, crisis-management mechanisms and historical tensions. Every minute spent on the poaching issue was a minute not spent discussing those areas most likely to bring Japan and China into conflict.

A Thaw in Name Only

At a meeting intended to break the ice, Abe instead received a very frosty reception. He went down this path in large part due to U.S. pressure, with Washington looking to Tokyo to reduce tensions in the East China Sea. But in the process of doing so, he violated a key tenet of statecraft: never negotiate for negotiations’ sake. Thus, rather than achieve “détente”—or anything resembling it—Abe handed Xi a domestic-political win, found himself on the defensive at home and abroad and secured little of value from either China or the United States.

Having looked so weak in Beijing, Abe may now actually be less able to compromise with a Xi Jinping who, in any case, gave no hint that there was wiggle room for altering Chinese behavior in the East China Sea. And with the joint statement proving to be new fodder for the quarrel, rather than an impetus for improving ties, a true crisis in Sino-Japanese relations could, troublingly, be closer than it was just two weeks ago.