China and Japan have decades of experience in managing their regular diplomatic crises, but escalating tensions over Taiwan and territorial disputes in the East China Sea are creating a new test for Asia’s most powerful giants.
Last month’s agreement between US and Japanese defence ministers to single out China as a common threat – and the earlier face-off in Alaska between senior Chinese and US diplomats – indicated rising US-China tensions were pushing Japan to side with the US because of its geographic importance in the region, experts said.
“It’s an unusual move for Japan to join with the US to single out China as a common threat in their ‘two-plus-two’ dialogues,” said Andrei Chang, editor-in-chief of the Canada-based Kanwa Defence Review.
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Japan had long refrained from commenting on Taiwan – which Beijing sees as a breakaway province to be returned to the mainland, by force if necessary – instead encouraging “dialogue for a peaceful solution to cross-strait tensions”, Chang said, because of the consequences of offending a rising China.
But, in a joint statement on March 17, Japanese and US defence chiefs said they had agreed to closely cooperate in the event of a military conflict in the Taiwan Strait.
The Kyodo news agency reported that Tokyo had been reviewing the feasibility of issuing a Self-Defence Force (SDF) dispatch order to protect US military ships and planes in the event of a crisis between mainland China and Taiwan, given the strait’s geographical proximity and the possibility that an armed conflict there would affect the safety of Japanese citizens.
The statement made Japan the first member of the US-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, known as the Quad, to declare its willingness to work with Washington over a potential Taiwan Strait emergency.
Explainer | What is the Quad, and how will it impact US-China relations under the Biden administration?
The grouping, which includes Australia and India, was formed in 2004 in response to the Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami. It has been under pressure from Japan and the US to change its role since China passed a law in January allowing its coastguard to fire on foreign ships in what it regards as its maritime territory.
The move intensified confrontations between the PLA and Japan’s Maritime SDF near the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus in Japan.
Cheung Mong, an associate professor with the School of International Liberal Studies at Waseda University in Japan, said Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga would not let the SDF directly engage in any battles against the PLA. “The most contribution made by the SDF may be providing rear-area logistic support for their US counterpart under the commitment of the two countries’ guidelines for defence cooperation revised in 1997,” he said.
“As a maritime power, Japan has remained vigilant on the development of China, a land-oriented giant, but pulls out all stops to develop blue water naval fleets. Suga understood the SDF can’t beat the PLA.”
Diplomatic ties between Beijing and Tokyo hit their lowest ebb under former Japanese prime minister Naoto Kan, when a Chinese trawler and two Japanese coastguard patrol boats collided near the East China Sea in September 2010. Territorial tensions were alleviated after Shinzo Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) came to power in 2012, with Abe visiting China in 2018.
But cracks have reappeared, with Japan taking a lead role in pulling together a joint statement from the Group of Seven foreign ministers in June condemning China’s crackdown on Hong Kong’s democracy advocates.
Japanese perceptions of China suffered a hit because of the Covid-19 pandemic, which was first reported in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in 2019 before becoming a global crisis that forced the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics as well as a relationship-mending trip to Japan by President Xi Jinping.
A Japanese diplomat, who requested anonymity, said the Japanese public had been angered by a lack of transparency from the Chinese authorities over the disease, which has claimed more than 9,000 lives in Japan. “Japan has suffered a great setback from Covid-19, not only the postponement of Olympics, but the hope to revive the economy,” the diplomat said.
Beijing is also closely watching Suga’s trip to the US on April 16, when Taiwan and Japan’s maritime disputes with China are expected to be the main items on the agenda.
Beijing has already warned that foreign intervention in Taiwan is a red line issue on which it will not compromise, and that any attempt to undermine its core national interests could lead to war, in accordance with its Anti-Secession Law ratified in 2005.
According to a report last year by the Rand Corporation, a US think tank, the PLA has built about 40 bases along the southeast coast to allow 1,000 fighter aircraft to operate over Taiwan. By contrast, the US navy could deploy 144 fifth-generation fighters from its carriers – making it hard to attain air and sea superiority.
As US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan have been busy restoring legacy alliances in the region, Shanghai-based maritime power expert Ni Lexiong said the trend would further undermine China’s influence, but give Japan more development opportunities.
“Joining with the US to counter a rising China would help Japan to accelerate its military normalisation process by upgrading its offensive capability under the help of its US ally,” he said.
In 2019, Japan’s cabinet approved a five-year US$240 billion arms procurement plan to strengthen its missile defence and air-strike capability as a counter to China’s growing air and sea power, as well as the missile threat posed by North Korea. A report published by the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) in March said Japan’s arms imports had increased by 124 per cent over the past five years.
“It’s a good thing that Japan finally spoke its mind, meaning the PLA now should consider it as an enemy in the event of a war against Taiwan,” said Gao Haikuan, an adviser to the Beijing-based Society of Sino-Japanese Relations History. “If a war occurs, Diaoyu Island, Okinawa and other US military bases on Japanese soil will become targets.”
Okinawa is the largest island in Japan’s southernmost Ryukyu chain, dubbed the “keystone of the Pacific” by the US air force and navy during World War II, and the Pentagon has maintained a large military presence there ever since. The historical status and sovereignty of Okinawa were challenged in a 2013 commentary published by People’s Daily, which called for a “reconsideration” of sovereignty over the Ryukyu island chain.
Cheung, from Wasade University, said the status of the Diaoyu and Okinawa islands were the most sensitive issues in Japan, similar in status to Taiwan and Hong Kong for Beijing.
“The problem is many Chinese still see the Diaoyu Islands dispute as a symbol of national humiliation from the First Sino-Japanese War [1894-95], but the Japanese believe it is a current national security affair and there is no dispute since the Japanese government bought ownership of the uninhabited archipelago from the Kurihara family in 2012 to nationalise it,” Cheung said.
In addition to their territory disputes, Tokyo’s relations with Beijing have long been strained by disagreements over the history of World War II. China has focused on the memory of the 1937 Nanking massacre, when the Japanese killed 300,000 people in a city now called Nanjing, while Japan has highlighted the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.
Cheung said Japan had been in a nightmare about being abandoned by Washington ever since the late US president Richard Nixon visited China in 1972 without notifying Tokyo. This had pushed the “closest ally” to learn how to deal with dilemmas amid “fears of abandonment and entrapment” when dancing with the world’s most powerful country and its giant neighbour.
To improve relations with Beijing, Cheung said Suga would continue his predecessor Abe’s tactical hedging policy to prevent “being abandoned” by the US and “entrapped” by a military conflict between Beijing and Taipei. “In defence, Japan has to look to the US because of their alliance, but economically, Tokyo will tend to jump on the bandwagon of China.”
China took in US$141.6 billion of Japanese goods in 2020, replacing the US as its top export buyer.
“There are signs the current Sino-Japanese tension is going to be eased. If both Beijing and Tokyo can manage their territory disputes properly, the current tension will be alleviated because the LDP is more skilful when dealing with China policy,” Cheung said. “The LDP has Nikai Toshihiro, a veteran politician described as the ‘most pro-Chinese’ due to his personal connections with Chinese leaders, who will be an effective channel to Beijing to help Suga heal the breach with China.”
However, how to reduce the negative sentiment in Japan evoked by the Covid-19 pandemic is another serious problem ahead for the leaders of the two countries.
When the International Olympic Committee announced its decision to accept China’s offer to supply Covid-19 vaccines to participants in the next Summer and Winter Games, Japan immediately responded with a cold shoulder.
Instead, Tokyo joined the US, India and Australia under the Quad mechanism to pool financing, manufacturing and distribution capacity by providing 1 billion vaccine doses across Asia by the end of 2022, in a counter to Beijing’s ambitious vaccine diplomacy initiative to give free shots to developing countries.
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