Bilateral relations between Japan and China remain deeply strained two years after Tokyo nationalized three Senkaku islets in the East China Sea on Sept. 11, 2012. The Senkaku Islands, part of Okinawa Prefecture, are also claimed by Beijing, and tensions between the two countries triggered by Japan’s move have spread to issues of historical perception and national security, and harmed economic ties and people’s perception of each other. Leaders of both countries should feel a sense a crisis over the situation and take quick and concrete actions to repair bilateral ties.
The nationalization of the islets was carried out by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to block an attempt by then Tokyo Gov. Shintaro Ishihara, an anti-China hawk, to purchase them from their private owner. Although Noda’s intention was to prevent damage to Japan-China ties, Beijing saw the move as a provocation on Japan’s part, and waves of large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations ensued in many Chinese cities.
China has repeatedly sent coast guard ships to waters near the Senkakus in an apparent attempt to challenge what it perceives as Japan’s move to solidify its control over the islands through nationalization. Such acts have stoked fears in Japan that they are a precursor to an attempt by China to take the islands by force.
Last November, China set up an air defense identification zone over a large space above the East China Sea, including the Senkakus. Chinese fighter jets came within several dozen meters from aircraft of Japan’s Maritime and Air Self-Defense Force in May in two separate occasions in the area where China’s ADIZ overlaps with Japan’s ADIZ.
The Japanese government should not be tempted to take these developments as a sign that China plans to seize the Senkaku Islands by force. Although Beijing insists that it has sovereignty over the islands, attention should be paid to Chinese President Xi Jinping’s July 2013 call for shelving the territorial dispute over the islands and joint development of natural resources in the East China Sea by China and Japan.
It’s likely that Beijing’s hard-line stance is aimed at strengthening its position in making the call for shelving the dispute and for joint development of natural resources.
Still, Beijing should refrain from making any more moves that further heighten suspicions among its neighbors — including Vietnam and the Philippines — that it is trying to establish maritime hegemony in the East and South China Seas.
The Japanese government should recognize that some of its actions have led China to have suspicions about Japan’s general direction. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly made remarks that deepens suspicions that he holds revisionist views on Japan’s modern history.
Last December, Abe became the first Japanese prime minister to visit Yasukuni Shine since 2006. Abe should acknowledge that his visit to Yasukuni — which honors 14 Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead — “disappointed” the United States and that U.S. President Barack Obama, during his Tokyo visit in April, called for Japan to seek dialogue and cooperation with China.
In July, Abe changed the government’s long-standing interpretation of Article 9 of the Constitution to enable Japan to take military action overseas even if Japan is not under attack — a move that gives China an excuse to charge that Japan is moving toward militarism.
Some members of the Japanese media fan anti-Chinese and anti-South Korean sentiments. This has resonated with the Abe administration’s tendency to emphasize the “China threat” and helped form a distorted view of China in Japan that appears to have become more commonplace.
According to a poll carried out in both countries in July and August, a record 93 percent of Japanese respondents said they had a bad impression of China. Although the perception of Japan in China has slightly improved, 86.6 percent of the Chinese citizens polled said they had a bad impression of Japan. Meanwhile, Chinese statistics show that Japanese direct investment to China in the first half of 2014 almost halved from the same period of last year to roughly ¥240 billion.
To improve ties between Japan and China, Abe should make clear that he feels sincere remorse over the fact that Japan’s past military aggression and colonialism caused tremendous suffering and pain to other Asian peoples and that Japan will not deviate from the path of peace.
Xi, for his part, should make China’s stated principle that it will follow pacifism and will never become a threat to other countries a foundation of his diplomacy.
Japan and China must take urgent steps to avoid the accidental development of an uncontrollable situation in the East China Sea. They should immediately start negotiations to implement a 2008 agreement to establish a communication mechanism between the two countries’ defense authorities concerning their activities in the area. They should also accelerate mutual efforts to strengthen confidence-building measures and to increase contacts at various levels.
On Sept. 3 — the day that China celebrates its victory against Japan in World War II — Xi said that although China will not budge on the Senkaku and historical perception issues, it hopes for stable and healthy development of the China-Japan relations.
Both sides will need to make some concessions to improve bilateral ties. Japan should acknowledge the existence of China’s claim to sovereignty over the Senkakus. China, for its part, should take conciliatory steps including halting the dispatch of ships to the waters surrounding the islands.
It is of great concern that Abe and Xi have yet to meet face to face despite the critical importance of the Japan-China relationship. The two leaders should make concerted efforts to repair bilateral ties at least to the extent that they are able to hold a meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this November in Beijing. Doing so would be an important first step in rebuilding mutual trust and putting bilateral relations on the right track.
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