A “Selective” Thaw

Kawashima Shin analyzes the contradictory nature of efforts to improve Japan-China relations.

Prime Minister Abe with President Xi in Beijing, December 23, 2019. After meeting with Xi, Abe attended the Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit in Chengdu the following day.

Japan-China relations are considered to be improving. Prime Minister Abe Shinzo plans to visit Chengdu and participate in the Japan-China-South Korea Trilateral Summit in December 2019. The improvement of Japan-China relations appears to be important, particularly for China from a strategic perspective, as friction between the United States and China continues. Yet the activities of the Chinese Government and other vessels have increased around the Senkaku Islands. And as shown by the detainment of a Japanese university professor, China’s security agencies have become more active in cracking down on Japanese nationals. How do the increased activities of vessels and the detainment of a professor mesh with efforts for the improvement of relations?

The apparent contradiction can be explained from two perspectives. China defines the improvement of relations as follows. It considers the world to be moving toward the end of the Pax Americana. With respect to factors that have been contributing to the Pax Americana, China accepts the United Nations, but denies any US-led security architecture and Western values. On the other hand, since the beginning of the US-China confrontation in 2018, China has been criticizing the United States for adopting protectionist policies while simultaneously promoting itself as a country that defends the existing free and open economic and trade order. If this view of the world order is applied to Japan-China relations, Japan is considered to be a sympathizer opposed to protectionism from economic and trade perspectives, but it is a source of confrontation over security and values from the perspective of international politics. Issues that occur around the Senkaku Islands and the detainment of Japanese nationals reveal these aspects as a matter of fact.

The apparent contradiction may also be explained from the viewpoint that it is the result of ministries and departments faithfully executing instructions from the leadership headed by Xi Jinping. The leadership’s basic policy, of which the Ministry of Foreign Affairs is aware, is that it will seek to improve relations with Japan for the time being in consideration of the friction with the United States. Nevertheless, it has no intention of compromising on territorial issues and security policies. It may be assumed that the leadership has been instructing the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the People’s Liberation Army to take a tough stance as usual or adopt an even harsher attitude regarding the activities around the Senkaku Islands and military and security issues. In addition, it would appear the leadership has been ordering the Ministry of State Security to tighten control over the influx of foreigners in conjunction with initiatives for strengthening monitoring capabilities nationwide. Furthermore, the United Front Work Department of the Communist Party appears to be increasing its activity. Therefore, when it comes to relations with Japan, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China tries to engage in a range of friendly activities with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, even though the CCG has become more active around the Senkaku Islands and the Ministry of State Security is holding Japanese researchers in custody.

Japanese sentiment toward China remained unfavorable in 2019, without showing any significant improvement. One of the factors is confrontation mainly in terms of military, security and territorial issues. With respect to the CCG’s activity around the Senkaku Islands, every month Chinese vessels intrude into the territorial waters more than fourteen times and more than 100 vessels are identified in the Contiguous Zone—a significant increase from the previous year. Despite efforts to improve relations, tensions have been rising on territorial and security fronts. This information is available on the Japan Coast Guard website.

Progress is slow on issues associated with the East China Sea, including the Japan-China Joint Development that eventually fell into a deadlock despite the agreement concluded in 2008. Few of the agreements concluded in 2008 have been implemented. In other words, efforts for the improvement of relations have been made selectively in recent years.  

The Japanese government maintains an attitude of advancing measures for the improvement of relations with China, and will welcome President Xi as a state guest when he visits Japan next spring. However, according to the media and public opinion, some appear to take a critical view toward this attitude. Issues associated with security and values are sensitive. With tensions rising, I remain doubtful about the improvement of relations. I assume that Japanese public opinion will be in favor of welcoming President Xi’s visit only after there are comprehensive improvements in relations, including issues related to security and values.   

KAWASHIMA Shin is a professor in the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Tokyo specializing in Political and Diplomatic History in Asia.

Note: This article is reprinted from “川岛真:日中之间有选择性的关系改善,” 联合早报/Lianhe Zaobao, December 18, 2019, with the permission of both the author and Lianhe Zaobao.

[This article appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of the Japan Journal.]


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