Welcome to installment XXIV (December 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective.
Contemporary Sino-Japanese relations is a complicated tale of both conflict and cooperation where security tensions in the East China Sea coexist with relatively cordial diplomatic interactions centered around an overlapping desires for stability and common economic ground.
At the beginning of 2020, both the security and diplomatic sides of the bilateral relationship seemed destined to cohabit uncomfortably. In Japan, concerns have been rising over the steady intensification of Chinese activities around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, yet the Japanese government was also preparing to welcome Xi Jinping for his first state visit to the archipelago in April. This was to be the culmination of a steady process of diplomatic rapprochement and a marquee event which then-Prime Minister Abe Shinzo vowed to make “meaningful” during his own trip to Beijing at the end of 2019.
But hopes the two countries could seize the occasion and agree on a solid framework to manage their disagreements have been dashed and the future development of their relationship remains on rocky ground. The spread of Covid-19 forced President Xi Jinping’s state visit to be postponed and a new date has yet to be determined. The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, also delayed by the pandemic, would have also been another occasion for positive diplomatic exchanges. In the absence of such opportunities, contentious issues have been left to dominate the relationship, resulting in a further aggravation of anti-Chinese sentiments in the Japanese political sphere in particular. The further growth in Chinese activities around the Senkaku/Diaoyu and its increasingly brazen challenges to Japan’s control of the islands is the major driver of this turn for the worse, but the spread of covid-19 and the security crackdown on Hong Kong has also added fuel to the flames.
In Japan negative perceptions of China are nothing new. Concerns about China’s maritime expansion started to appear in political discourse as early as the 1990s. By 2010, as the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute intensified, there was an established consensus that China’s rise posed a major threat to Japanese security. When the Abe administration won office in late-2012, its position on China as a threat was obvious in policy documents and frequently featured in official communiqués criticizing Chinese behavior in the East China Sea. Its diplomatic engagement strategy was never inspired by anything more than a pragmatic understanding of the need for stable ties with such an important neighbor.
With diplomacy on hold and the situation worsening, critical voices in Japan have grown louder and dovish voices have dwindled
Some politicians have been even more explicit in their criticism of China. Even as the Abe government was preparing to receive Xi Jinping in early 2020, some LDP lawmakers protested openly against the visit, arguing that it should not take place as long as Chinese ships continued to visit the Senkaku/Diaoyu and the Communist Party oppressed the people of Hong Kong and Xinjiang. With diplomacy on hold and the situation worsening on all the aforementioned fronts, those critical voices have grown even louder as the number of openly dovish political actors dwindle. Even the Japanese Communist Party included criticism of Beijing’s “great-power chauvinism and hegemonism”.
A report on China’s influence in Japan released by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), an American think tank, this summer mentioned only a few “pro-China” politicians, such as LDP general secretary Nikai Toshihiro and his faction partner Imai Takaya, who attracted further criticism from hawkish Japanese commentators. Two months later, a Japan-based Taiwanese author and critic of the Chinese Communist Party published a book celebrating the “collapse” of the Japanese pro-China collective. Meanwhile, some LDP members were drafting a proposal requesting the government conduct joint exercises with the US military around the Senkaku/Diaoyu.
The current atmosphere in Tokyo leaves little space for a nuanced and moderate debate on policy toward China
It therefore comes as no surprise that during Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s recent visit to Japan, all his interlocutors made their first order of business to press him on the disputed islands. Wang and his counterpart Motegi Toshimitsu did discuss several more positive topics in their meeting, including the resumption of business travel and collaboration on trade, health and environmental issues. Yet coverage of his visit was dominated by a controversial statement made during a joint press conference, during which Wang forcefully asserted China’s sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu. To make matters worse Motegi ended the conference without offering a rebuttal. The condemnations were immediate and universal, forcing Motegi to forcefully denounce the offending remarks in front of the Diet and to emphasize how clear he had made the Japanese position on the issue. The Japanese press, for its part, was happy to emphasize the incident without providing context or analysis of Wang’s exact remarks.
The incident suggests that the Chinese strategy to engage Japan while at the same time working to undermine its control of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands is likely to hit a wall soon. Wang sought to present a friendly and proactive face during his visit, but in Japan the visit will be mostly remembered for the controversy at the joint press conference. The current atmosphere in Tokyo leaves little space for a nuanced and moderate debate on policy toward China. Instead, calls to adopt more drastic measures to defend the disputed islands are becoming more urgent. If the relationship continues on its current trajectory, hopes for a successful state visit by President Xi Jinping, which were reasonably high one year ago, will grow ever more faint.