As Washington and Beijing increasingly clash over global primacy, Japan’s own ties with communist-ruled China are experiencing an upswing — at least on the surface — ahead of Tuesday’s 70th anniversary of the People’s Republic.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping said in late June that ties have returned to a “normal track,” as both talked up a “new era of Japan-China relations” at the Osaka Group of 20 summit during the Chinese leader’s first visit to Japan as leader. Furthermore, the two leaders agreed that Xi will visit Japan again next spring — this time as a state guest.
The display has stood in stark contrast to the famously icy handshake in 2014 between the two Asian rivals, which highlighted how chilly relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies had become. That handshake, however, turned out to become something of a turning point, as the two leaders continued to push for a thaw, meeting several times on the sidelines of multilateral summits.
The speed of this thaw has only increased since U.S. President Donald Trump embarked on a hard-line campaign against China in 2017, with Beijing warming to Tokyo to free up some strategic breathing room and even seeking advice from Japan on how to deal with the U.S. trade war.
But despite all of that, there are few signs of substance beyond the gushing language between Tokyo and Beijing.
While ties between the two Asian powerhouses have warmed in recent years, the improvement is shaky — a marriage of political convenience. Behind the rhetoric about a “mutually beneficial” relationship lies a fundamentally incompatible reality, observers say.
“The thaw we’re seeing now is a short-term measure pursued by both sides, who know all too well their strategic rivalry in the broader context but who do not mind reaping some practical benefits to meet certain immediate needs at home,” said Yinan He, a professor at Lehigh University in Pennsylvania.
But issues such as the territorial dispute over the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which became a focal point of tension in the early 2010s, as well as Japan’s legacy of aggression in World War II, remain the elephants in the room.
Contentious issues like these will remain potential triggers for a return to a more adversarial relationship, experts say, providing a wobbly foundation for any hopes of a longer-term improvement in ties.
Rather, observers expect the rivals’ recent history to repeat itself — with the promises of a brighter future ultimately marred, as in the past, by an unshakable lack of trust.
Hedging against China
In October 2006, less than three weeks into his first stint in office, Abe himself espoused the importance of better relations, visiting Beijing for a meeting with then-President Hu Jintao and standing in stark contrast to his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who had angered China with his six visits as prime minister to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including Class-A war criminals.
In Beijing at the time, both sides vowed to “elevate the Japan-China relations to a higher dimension,” a proclamation that, heard today, rings similar to the affirmations uttered by Abe and Xi in recent months.
“I’d say the surface appearance improved, although Abe was somewhat politer to China than Koizumi with his in-your-face visits to Yasukuni,” June Teufel Dreyer, a University of Miami political science professor, said of Abe’s first attempt at bolstering the Sino-Japanese relationship.
In his first New Year’s address as prime minister in 2007, Abe even went so far as to say that Japan and China were moving toward a strategic relationship based on trust.
Dreyer said this “cliche” of common strategic interests “keeps being repeated” even today — but she noted that it “doesn’t necessarily describe reality.”
“In fact, China’s strategic interests conflict with Japan’s except in the broad sense [that] peace and prosperity is good for both of them,” she said. “The only message is that, although they’re saying polite things, each is doing things that do not indicate trust.”
For Japan, this has mainly come in the form of hedging against China’s increasingly muscular military, which is expected to be on full display during Tuesday’s 70th anniversary parade.
The Chinese Defense Ministry said last week that the showcase will include around 15,000 military personnel, 160 aircraft, 580 weapons systems and 59 formations in total — making it the biggest military parade in recent history.
For the better part of the past two decades, Tokyo has looked warily at Beijing’s military modernization, which has included the development of aircraft carriers as well as advanced anti-ship missiles capable of targeting American carrier strike groups in the Pacific.
Particularly concerning for Tokyo is Beijing’s naval aspirations. During the administration of the now-defunct Democratic Party of Japan, Tokyo announced plans to shift its defense posture in 2010 to better defend Japan’s remote islands.
Furthermore, Japan’s Defense Ministry in August proposed a 1.2 percent increase in military spending for 2020, taking the annual budget to a record ¥5.32 trillion (about $50 billion). If approved, the budget will mark the eighth consecutive hike in military spending since Abe took office in 2012.
The proposal includes funds for F-35B advanced stealth fighters that it wants to operate from remodelled aircraft carriers. That purchase will help it project military power and offset concerns about China’s increasing forays into the vicinity of Japanese territory by extending the range at which the SDF can operate.
Recent years have also seen Japan work to reinforce remote islands against Chinese invasion by building new bases and deploying advanced weapons there. Media reports have cited U.S. and Japanese defense officials as anonymously arguing that China, having cemented its control over the South China Sea, is poised to increase pressure on the East China Sea, home to waters rich with fish and potentially oil and gas deposits.
In April last year, Tokyo also activated its first marine unit since World War II —the Amphibious Rapid Deployment Brigade — a force trained to counter invaders occupying Japanese islands.
All of this has happened as Japan has increased the pace and cohesiveness of the SDF’s exercises with the U.S. military, improving integration and joint operations via a slew of targeted drills.
Beyond mere hardware and deployments, Tokyo has also looked to deepen cooperation with like-minded democracies under its “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” in a bid to offset a similar push by Beijing’s Belt and Road initiative, which hopes to establish an economic sphere of influence that stretches from mainland China to Europe. This has included more joint military and defense training, donations of excess defense and military equipment and low-risk loans for bolstering maritime capacity to partner states.
Still, due to diplomatic considerations, the potential threat posed by China has rarely been mentioned directly or on record by Tokyo as the root cause for the increased spending and focus on defense — though this is widely acknowledged by experts as being driven by alarm over Beijing’s military build-up.
The seeds of mistrust
Near the Senkakus, known in China as the Diaoyu, Chinese government vessels routinely venture into the contiguous zone around the islands, with some ships even entering Japan’s territorial waters. One of China’s stealthy nuclear attack submarines has even made an appearance, surfacing in the waters last year to show off the country’s national flag.
Crucial chokepoints and entryways into the western Pacific now see China punching further into and above the waters with what Beijing calls “regular” patrols of heavy bombers and warships, prompting a level of scrambles by Air Self-Defense Forces fighters not seen since the Cold War.
Observers have characterized China’s approach to the East and South China seas as a “salami-slicing” or “gray-zone” strategy. By employing a series of incremental actions, none of which by itself justifies war, the strategy seeks to gradually change the status quo in China’s favor.
This has prompted some close calls between the two militaries in the airspace above the East China Sea and between Japan Coast Guard vessels and de facto Chinese government paramilitaries, known as “maritime militia,” swarming the area near the Senkakus.
Dreyer points to the area as a powder keg that could reignite at the slightest spark.
In the future, “it’s highly likely there will be another row, and that it will occur over the East China Sea disputes,” she said.
The leaders of both countries have also stoked mutual mistrust, especially when it comes to their stated — and unstated — ambitions.
Xi has cemented his grip on power, removing rivals as part of a sweeping anti-corruption crackdown and securing his place as de facto president for life by eliminating term limits. He has also overseen China’s ambitious military modernization program boosting defense spending each year since taking power in late 2012.
This thirst for power, and the Xi-led Communist Party’s goal of a “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049, the 100th anniversary of the party, have fueled anxiety in Tokyo that China’s rise may not be about “win-win cooperation,” as it claims, and instead more about seeking a return to its position as the regional hegemon.
Abe, meanwhile, has been outspoken about his long-held desire to revise the nation’s pacifist Constitution.
Under his current initiative for constitutional reform, the LDP aims to present its amendment draft, including an addition to war-renouncing Article 9 to recognize the Self-Defense Forces, during the autumn Diet session.
Beijing has criticized this move, with state-run media saying it “would not only raise doubts in China about Japan’s commitment to peaceful development, but might also threaten its national interests, given that some in Japan have tried to depict China as a potential security threat.”
The Japanese leader has also faced criticism from Beijing on occasion over his perceived views on wartime history, though observers say both countries have used the issue to stoke nationalism. Abe has largely refrained from making inflammatory remarks on history as prime minister, though he aroused Beijing’s ire when he visited Yasukuni Shrine in late 2013 — his first and only visit as prime minister to date.
“Abe’s revisionism means that he may be tempted to toy with issues of history out of his own genuine beliefs, but also to court particular domestic audiences,” said Christopher Hughes, a Japanese studies professor at the University of Warwick in England. “China is also sensitive to any moves by Japan on history and has its own domestic audiences.”
Still, there has been something of a clearing of their air in recent years between the two sides. “At present Abe and Xi seem intent, having made their positions on history clear, not to stir the issues,” he said.
“All the same,” he added, “any kind of incident could spark tensions again.”
Despite these security concerns, one area where the two countries have maintained more of a semblance of equilibrium has been the economic sphere — especially as the U.S., Japan’s top ally, wages a bitter trade war against China.
Some experts have said that the economic conflict could push Japan and Abe, who has also had to deal with his own trade threats from Trump, closer to China.
“Abe is suspicious of China, but realistic enough to accept that a perpetual state of high tension with China is not in Japan’s interests,” said Hughes. He “is clearly close to the U.S. on many security issues that relate to China, but on economic issues, Japan is worried that the United States’ ire on trade might also turn on Japan and that the U.S. is doing damage to the current international trading order.”
Nevertheless, Abe has successfully managed to negotiate the “first stage” of a new trade deal last Wednesday that both appeared to placate Trump’s onerous demands and minimize the economic fallout for Japan.
But with both countries facing sustained economic pressure from the White House, the two economic giants will also be looking to use their improved ties to uphold the free-trade regime.
Zhang Baohui, director of Lingnan University’s Center for Asian Pacific Studies in Hong Kong, noted that although the Trump factor “is one of several … motivating Japan to improve ties with China,” Abe’s efforts to improve relations with China started significantly earlier than the current U.S. administration.
“China is … Japan’s largest trading partner, a plain fact that cannot be ignored,” he said.
What’s more, he added, good relations with China “will also reduce domestic opposition to constitutional reform, which remains an important agenda of Abe.”
Others, however, point to Tokyo’s compartmentalization of economic and security issues as testament that Trump’s trade war and his volatile foreign policy will do little, if anything, to push Japan closer to China.
Derek Grossman, a senior analyst at the nonprofit, nonpartisan Rand Corp., said that for Japan, “economics and security competition should and must remain separate.”
“Replacing the U.S. for China in the trade equation won’t help Japanese objectives because it could make Tokyo and the rest of the region increasingly dependent on China,” Grossman said.
According to Grossman, Trump may be seen as a kind of great disrupter, but this has done little to alter the trajectory of Sino-Japanese ties.
“I don’t think the age of Trump or anything else has significantly altered the natural trajectory that has featured both Xi and Abe wanting warmer ties for quite some time,” he said. “They’re neighbors and the second- and third-largest global economies, after all, and must get along.”
Asked about talk of Japan’s potential participation in China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative, Grossman said that “very little has happened” — and was unlikely to happen — on that front.
Rather, Japan has been pushing its own strategy abroad, calling for “quality infrastructure.”
In one example, Japan has tied up with the European Union, signing an infrastructure agreement Friday to link Europe and Asia as a counter to the Belt and Road strategy.
That agreement repeatedly stresses the importance of projects being both environmentally and fiscally sustainable — a veiled swipe at the Belt and Road initiative, which critics say saddles countries with vast debts to Chinese companies that they cannot repay.
Japan also believes China could use the Belt and Road strategy as cover for giving its military an even stronger foothold in the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions.
“It is possible that the construction of infrastructure based on the initiative will further promote the activities of the People’s Liberation Army in the Indian Ocean, Pacific Ocean and elsewhere,” Japan’s Defense Ministry said in an annual white paper released Friday.
Japan and other nations have raised concerns that Belt and Road port construction in places such as Djibouti and Cambodia could have a dual military use.
History repeats itself?
Ultimately, as Japan and China continue to trod down different paths with divergent interests, it remains unclear if ties can withstand the test of time, regardless of Abe and Xi’s vow during their Osaka G20 meeting “to have constant and close communications as eternal neighboring countries.”
Lehigh University’s He, for one, says that the long-term chances of Tokyo and Beijing sliding back into a period of animosity are high.
“Not like in the 1970s and 1980s, when the relationship was underpinned by the common strategic interest to counterbalance the Soviet Union, or the 1990s and early 2000s, when commercial interest worked to buffer political tensions to some extent, broad-based, sustainable common interests have been absent in the past 10-15 years to stabilize their ties,” she said. “That’s why we have seen greater volatility and ever-decreasing mutual trust.”
What’s more, as Beijing has eclipsed Tokyo as a premier power in Asia, the view in Japan of China as a threat has grown substantially, leading to an erosion of affinity on the Japanese side.
According to a survey released Monday by the Pew Research Center, 85 percent of Japanese had an unfavorable view of China — by far the most negative response across all 32 countries surveyed.
While China’s maritime assertiveness near the Senkakus and in the western Pacific likely have played a large role in the Japanese perception of the country as a threat, unresolved history and political issues that used to draw little attention from Japan, such as human rights and China’s authoritarian turn, also “have accentuated the image of China being an untrustworthy neighbor and long-term adversary,” according to He.
For now, China has remained relatively silent on this shift. But that, like the two countries’ volatile relationship, could change at any given moment — a sentiment echoed by He.
“I would not be surprised if the current respite turns out to be short-lived and superficial,” she said.