Shin Kawashima analyzes the actions of the Chinese military amid an improvement in Japan-China ties and the battle against COVID-19.
In 2019, it was said that efforts to improve Japan-China relations were made in preparation for Xi Jinping’s official visit to Japan. In addition, the face mask diplomacy of the current COVID-19 outbreak has been understood to be spotlighting the friendly interactions between the two nations. However, it was revealed that the activities of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) around Japan have increased. So far, the activities of the China Coast Guard (CCG) around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea have been reported every month on the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) website and in other places. This has made it clear that Chinese government vessels have rather grown more active than before, regardless of the improvement of China’s relationship with Japan, their friendly cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, or other factors. However, the same is happening in the sky, revealed by the announcement regarding scrambles of the Japan Air Self-Defense Force (JASDF) in fiscal year 2019 made by the Ministry of Defense (MoD) of Japan on April 9, 2020.
The MoD announced that the JASDF scrambled aircraft 947 times during fiscal year 2019 (April 1, 2019 to March 31, 2020), down 52 times from the previous fiscal year. However, this figure is the third largest on record. It is especially noteworthy that while the number of scrambles against Russian aircraft decreased, sorties against China increased by 37 to 675, accounting for 70% of the total. Instances of joint flights of Chinese and Russian aircraft from the Sea of Japan to the East China Sea are also attracting attention.
Looking at the ocean, the activities of the CCG around the Senkaku Islands slowed slightly at the end of 2017 into 2018 but began to increase in 2019. Now vessels usually enter Japan’s territorial waters more than four times every month, and enter the contiguous zone more than 100 times (Figure 1). Activities of the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLA Navy) have also increased (Figure 2).
China claims that its relationship with Japan has improved. It has been pointed out that some changes in China’s domestic public opinion of Japan have been seen. In addition, since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, there have been moving stories, including Japan’s donation of face masks to China in the initial period and China’s donation of face masks to Japan which began in March. While President Xi Jinping’s official visit to Japan has been postponed, the improvement of Japan-China relations appears to remain unchanged as a premise. The issue that China remains most dubious about in this process is that Japanese society still holds an extremely negative view of China. This is partly because the military activities of China and the other activities of Chinese government vessels around Japan are regarded as a threat by the country. This is exactly why the Japanese people directed their anger toward China when a renowned Japanese comedian died of COVID-19.
In China, there are concerns over Beijing’s foreign policy. Regarding security, China is opposed to the Japan-US Security Alliance and would not be able to make concessions over it, even to further China’s core interests. It will not accept Western values, either. It is also believed that China intends to build win-win economic relationships with other countries. However, if these intentions are reflected in its bilateral relationships with individual countries and China puts extremely apparent pressure on its counterparts regarding security issues, the improvement of the relationship and the moving stories about friendly interactions will be deemed extremely superficial, no matter how much they may be touted. Of course, China may point out that the data announced by the Japanese MoD and the JCG are incorrect. If this is the case, can’t China disclose more information about its own military activities and the activities of its government vessels as China strongly criticizes the China threat theory. It is true that some overseas press reports criticize China based on predetermined conclusions. However, as long as China itself does not promote the disclosure of information, other countries will continue to publish data, leading the international community to form its view of China based on that data. From the viewpoint of public diplomacy as well, China should disclose a certain amount of information or explain and persuade people by exercising accountability. Otherwise, Japan’s view of China will remain as negative as it has been, at the very least.
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 (TJJ May/June 2020 issue) from “川岛真 :应对冠病当下的中国军事 行动,”联合早报/Lianhe Zaobao, April 21, 2020, with the permission of both the author and Lianhe Zaobao.QUOTE