Sino-Japanese Review

Is Japan Distancing itself from China?

Welcome to instalment XXVIII (April 2021) 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.

During the Japan-U.S. summit in Washington last week, Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide and President Joe Biden announced an ambitious and broad “U.S.-Japan global partnership for a new era”. Yet their agreement to cooperate on the challenges posed by China attracted the most attention. The joint leaders’ statement featured unprecedented criticism towards China’s assertiveness in the East and South China Sea, human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Hong Kong, and China’s coercive tactics which they deemed “inconsistent with the international rules-based order”. Interestingly, for the first time in 30 years the document also mentioned Taiwan. 

In the run-up to the bilateral summit, the United States was eager to condemn China while Japanese officials preferred a less confrontational tone. Ultimately though, Suga endorsed explicit condemnations of China’s behavior. Two important elements of context explain why. 

First, regarding Taiwan, parallels must be traced to two previous instances where the United States and Japan issued high level statements during tensions over the island. In 1996, a month after the Third Taiwan Strait crisis, Prime Minister Hashimoto Yutaro and President Bill Clinton announced that the two countries’ alliance would be enhanced and would notably include bilateral cooperation on situations “in areas surrounding Japan”. This expression was understood by all concerned parties as an oblique reference to Taiwan. Nine years later, during tensions sparked by Taiwanese President Chen Shui-bian’s flirtation with formal independence, the U.S.-Japan “2+2” meeting outlined shared objectives that included the “peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait through dialogue”.

In Suga and Biden’s joint statement the inclusion of a similar call for “peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait” and “the peaceful resolution of cross-Strait issues” evokes such precedents. One could simply argue that the elevation of Taiwan to an explicit mention at a leaders level reflects an assessment that tensions in the strait today are at an even higher level compared to 15 or 25 years ago. Recent displays of force from a now much more powerful China warrant elevated concerns from Japan, whose security could be greatly jeopardized by a takeover of the island by the mainland. The inclusion of Taiwan in Suga and Biden’s joint statement had in fact been trailed earlier this year by senior Japanese officials who publicly expressed their unease about the precarious future of the island and by the very similar language adopted in the joint statement issued after a “2+2” meeting in Tokyo in March.

Taiwan was however only one of the shared concerns listed by Suga and Biden. Their statement in fact marked the culmination of unusually frank criticisms from Tokyo against China’s behavior since the start of the year. Another important element of context is the intensification of Chinese activities around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. In our December 2020 column we pointed out how China’s growing pressure on this issue ran the risk of hardening Japan’s overall stance vis-à-vis its neighbor. The territorial dispute has only become a greater source of tension since then. In addition to sending even more ships to the islands, China aims to strengthen its claim by conducting law enforcement operations against Japanese fishermen. In response, the LDP is now considering giving new powers to the Japanese coast guard and strengthening its crisis response capabilities. A greater presence of the Japan-U.S. alliance in the surrounding waters is also part of Japan’s plan. A greater willingness to follow the United States in open condemnations of China’s “challenge to the rules-based international order” is a way for Tokyo to both gain support from its ally and signal its displeasure to Beijing. 

China denies allegations that its actions are raising tensions in the East China Sea and pushing Japan to adopt a more hardline position. It has been eager to depict this increasingly critical posture as a sign of Tokyo’s “vassal” mentality toward its ally, accusing it of slavishly following Washington’s plan to “contain” its strategic rival. Beijing’s official response to the Suga-Biden statement condemned it for “fanning bloc confrontation” and endangering regional peace and stability. However, this was to be expected after such blunt criticism. China’s refusal to recognize any strategic autonomy to Japan is also keeping with its tendency to see any Asian country opposing it as a “pawn” that is foolishly letting itself be used by a domineering America. It remains to be seen if its reaction will go further than harsh rhetoric and include some sort of economic retaliation toward its neighbor.

China may refrain from doing so based on the signals sent by the Suga administration that, even as it is aligning its position closer to Washington, it still seeks to avoid burning bridges with Beijing and wishes to preserve the relatively good diplomatic relations that Abe Shinzo managed to establish. The fact that Japanese officials hinted to the press ahead of the bilateral summit in April that they had reservations over the strong language pushed by the White House can be seen as one such signal. Another is the remark by Foreign Minister Motegi Toshimitsu that the Sino-Japanese relationship remained more cordial than the Sino-American one despite a somewhat contentious phone call with his Chinese counterpart. Suga himself made sure to emphasize after his discussion with Biden that fostering a stable relationship with China was crucial.

All this suggests that, despite the harsher rhetoric, Japan still seeks to maintain its dual track approach toward China, confronting it in the security sphere while promoting good economic and diplomatic relations. China’s current assertiveness on all fronts is making this strategy harder to sustain. There is however no domestic consensus yet on how far to go in amending it. Japanese lawmakers are increasingly hawkish, but more dovish business representatives are also calling on the government to proceed carefully. The direction of travel is clear, then, but not yet set in stone. Much will depend on whether China continues to escalate its pressure tactics in the East China Sea, or recognizes the associated cost and recalibrates.

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Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international affairs. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and a MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University and a BA in International Relations from the University of Geneva. He has previously worked at the Swiss Embassy in Tokyo and has been a visiting student at Fudan University in Shanghai.

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Andrea A. Fischetti is a government scholar conducting research on Asia-Pacific Affairs and East Asian Security at the University of Tokyo and at the Asia Pacific Initiative. He was a visiting student at the Hiroshima Peace Institute of Hiroshima City University, and a research assistant at the House of Commons in the British Parliament. Mr. Fischetti earned his MA in War Studies from King’s College London, following a BA with First Class Honours in International Relations, Peace and Conflict Studies.

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