Tensions have escalated after Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga discussed China-related issues with US President Joe Biden on Friday during talks at the White House. The two leaders called for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait”, the first reference to Taiwan – which Beijing claims as its territory – in a joint statement in over 50 years. They also said they would counter China’s “intimidation” in the Asia-Pacific region.
After accusing Japan and the US of sowing division over the weekend, Beijing on Monday said the two countries were inciting “group confrontation”.
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“The US and Japan advertise freedom and openness on the surface, but in fact they gang up to form small groups and incite group confrontation, which is the real threat to regional peace and stability,” foreign ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin said.
“China demands that the US and Japan stop interfering in China’s internal affairs,” he said, adding that it would “take all necessary measures to defend its sovereignty, security and development interests”.
Li Jiacheng, a research fellow with the Charhar Institute, a foreign policy think tank in Hebei, said any Chinese measures targeting Japan were likely to be in the area of security.
“For instance, China could send military aircraft into Japan’s air defence identification zone, or send public service vessels to the Diaoyu Islands … in a bid to exert deterrent pressure on Japan,” Li said. “China may also strengthen its military deployment around Taiwan.”
Relations between Beijing and Tokyo were already strained over the disputed Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls and calls the Senkakus. Li also said Tokyo could have taken the position on Taiwan to get a security commitment from the US on the Diaoyus.
“China is unlikely to take major economic action against Japan at present as China is pushing for the RCEP to come into force – a regional trade agreement that excludes the US,” Li said. “Japan is a RCEP signatory, plus China still wants to join the CPTTP trade agreement led by Japan.”
The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership was signed in November but still needs to be ratified by at least six Association of Southeast Asian Nations and three non-Asean members to take effect.
China is Japan’s largest trading partner, accounting for 22 per cent of Japanese exports and 26 per cent of its imports last year, compared to the United States at 18 per cent of exports and 11 per cent of imports, respectively.
Trade data from Japan’s finance ministry shows its overall exports jumped 16.1 per cent in March, thanks to a surge in exports to China worth 1.63 trillion yen (US$15 billion), the highest level since trade records began in 1979.
Professor Chen Youjun, head of the regional economics department at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies, said it was not unusual for Japan and the US to make a joint statement. “The key is whether there will be any substantial follow-up action,” Chen said.
Song Luzheng, an international relations researcher at Fudan University in Shanghai, said Japan would only be following the US “on the surface”.
“I doubt whether it inwardly wants to confront China with the US, given that China will always be in Asia, but the US presence may not. Japan has neither the guts nor the strength to confront China,” Song said. “But if Japan makes substantive moves, China will definitely take countermeasures and fight back hard.”
Li said the strengthening US-Japan alliance signalled the urgency for China to unite with neighbouring countries such as Russia, South Korea and North Korea to put pressure on Japan, while Song held that China still needed to maintain good relations with Japan.
Additional reporting by Catherine Wong and Sarah Zheng
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