Sino-Japanese Review

How Long Will China Restrain its Policy toward Japan?

Welcome to installment XXXVII (January 2022) 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.

This column has, over the past months and years, chronicled the spread of a more hardline attitude toward Beijing in Tokyo, where many among the political elite have become eager to push back against China’s encroachment around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, its pressure on Taiwan, and its human rights abuses. The pressing question is whether China will react with a more confrontational posture toward Japan in response.  It’s difficult to gauge the Chinese Communist Party’s line of thinking but judging by the official reaction to recent controversies and by the tone of media and scholarly commentaries, Beijing shows little sign of shifting its relatively moderate attitude. Although this may eventually change, Chinese leaders still seem undecided on how to respond to Japan’s closer alignment with Washington in the emerging superpower rivalry.

Beijing still seems to consider Washington the real instigator of heightened tensions in the Taiwan strait, and Japan a side player at best

Predictably, China’s sharpest official criticism of Japan in recent months concerned Taiwan. After a statement by  former prime minister Abe Shinzo that a crisis in Taiwan would be  an emergency for Japan and for the U.S.-Japan Alliance, the Japanese ambassador in Beijing was summoned to hear condemnations of “interference in China’s internal affairs”, while a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman criticized various Japanese misdeeds, from its wartime aggression to the decision to release contaminated water from Fukushima into the Pacific Ocean. Official criticism of similar comments by Aso Taro, another influential Japanese politician, earlier in 2021 followed a similar line. However, neither incident had a lasting impact. Beijing still seems to consider Washington the real instigator of heightened tensions in the Taiwan strait, and Japan a side player at best. The Chinese reaction to the Japanese government’s decision not to send any senior officials to the upcoming Beijing Olympics was also fairly restrained.

To understand how Japan’s progression towards a more active defense policy may be impacting Chinese strategic thinking, we must look to a recent talk by Yang Bojian, a prominent Japan expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. He argues that close alignment with the United States is a means for Japan to further its own strategic designs, and that it is now determined to become an actor in the game of great power politics. This includes seeking to “impede China’s development” through interference in the Taiwan issue. Despite the positive impact on Sino-Japanese ties brought about by the new Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), Yang believes the relationship will be characterized by an extended period of turbulence and push and pull between competition and cooperation.

The question is when Beijing will eventually judge Tokyo’s attitude to have become too “anti-China”, requiring a focus on “punitive measures” of some kind

The question then becomes whether policy-makers in Beijing will eventually judge Tokyo’s attitude to have become too “anti-China”, requiring a focus on competition and “punitive measures” of some kind, similar to those inflicted on other countries guilty of “provocations”. Beijing has not yet reached that point, though, perhaps due to their assessment of political dynamics in Japan. This topic was recently analyzed by the Shanghai-based newspaper The Paper, which depicts in stark terms a tug of war in Tokyo between the “anti-China” faction led by Abe and the more moderate one led by the current prime minister Kishida Fumio.

Seen through this lens, Abe’s pressure on Japan’s government to adopt a more hardline attitude regarding Taiwan and  the Beijing Olympics is a way to undermine support for Kishida and his foreign minister Hayashi Yoshimasa (who hails from the same prefecture as Abe and is a political rival). Yet, thanks to the appointment of the non-Abe aligned Motegi Toshimitsu as Secretary General of the Liberal Democratic Party and other astute maneuvers, Kishida is judged to currently have the upper hand, with positive consequences for Sino-Japanese relations.

If this analysis in any way reflects the thinking of Chinese policy-makers, it may explain Beijing’s continuing restraint toward Tokyo (as does a desire to avoid turmoil on the 50th anniversary of Sino-Japanese diplomatic relations amid a delicate year for Chinese politics). Kishida is believed to be in both a strong position domestically and an amenable interlocutor for Xi Jinping and his team. A more cynical interpretation is that the agitation of Abe and other conservative politicians is believed to be nothing but talk while Japan’s foreign policy remains under the influence of big companies eager to avoid confrontation and maintain access to the Chinese market. It may require a strong statement of intent in the new national security strategy currently being crafted in Tokyo to change this perception.

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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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