Sino-Japanese Review

Contrasting Pictures of Sino-Japanese Relations to Close Out 2022

Welcome to installment XLV 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.

As 2022 comes to an end, recent events offer two different ways to look at the current state of Sino-Japanese relations. On the one hand, diplomatic relations are coming out of the freeze imposed by the pandemic and both sides have pledged to expand cooperation. On the other, both sides are preparing for heightened security tensions that could, in the worse case scenario, lead them to armed conflict. This contradictory picture of relative diplomatic comity despite underlying security tensions is far from new. Indeed, it has been frequently highlighted in this column over the years. Yet, it has come into especially stark focus in the past few weeks. The result is likely to be stability in Sino-Japanese relations over the short term, even as the prospect for a genuine rapprochement between the two countries continues to grow dimmer in the long term.

A positive picture of Sino-Japanese relations was on display during the meeting between Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and President Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in Bangkok on November 18th. The Japanese and Chinese read-outs of the discussion between the two leaders emphasized different priorities – security issues such as Taiwan, North Korea, and Ukraine as well as conditions for Japanese businesses in China for the former, coded expressions of concern about Japan following the U.S.’s hardline stance in international diplomacy and tech export restrictions for the latter – and no progress was made on managing the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute. Yet both sides pledged to collaborate on matters of shared concern such as the green transition and old-age care and to revitalize both diplomatic dialogue and people-to-people exchanges. There has already been one genuine achievement following the summit with the announcement that a long-discussed military hotline would finally start operation in Spring 2023. This raises hopes for further progress, for instance when Foreign Minister Hayashi Yoshimasa visits Beijing in late December or early next year.

In contrast to this image of successful diplomacy, the national security strategy published by the Japanese government around a month after the summit in Bangkok paints a much darker picture of Chinese foreign policy and the concerns it raises in Tokyo. While China was not described as a “threat” as some in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party were pushing for, it was still depicted as Japan’s “greatest strategic challenge”, with the aim of putting the country’s assessment in line with those of the US and NATO. In the previous national security strategy, Tokyo had only pointed out international “concerns” about Chinese behavior – an expression still present in the new document, now strengthened to “severe concerns”. The new strategy also stresses the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan straits and does highlight the “threat” posed to residents of Okinawa by the Chinese missiles that fell in the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone during exercises conducted following Nancy Pelosi’s visit to the island in August this year.

Japan is making concrete plans to defend itself against an attack from China even as bilateral relations have improved

The result of Japan’s review of its security strategy was not just the adoption of new, more urgent language regarding China. Decisions regarding a sharp increase of defense spending, aiming for 2 percent of GDP by 2027, and the acquisition of “counter-strike capabilities” allowing Japan to preemptively strike enemy bases from which an attack on Japan is deemed imminent, were made with surprising speed considering the departure they imply from Japan’s “exclusively defensive posture”. North Korea’s intensive missile testing is part of the rationale for such moves, as is the shock from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, but China clearly is top of mind for Japanese defense planners. To stress the point, the national security strategy for the first time listed China before any other security concerns. The ministry of defense also announced that it was planning to strengthen the brigade in charge of the defense of Okinawa, and to create a framework allowing the Self-Defense Force to use civilian facilities in case of emergency – all preparations for a possible Taiwan contingency.

Japan is therefore making concrete plans to defend itself against a Chinese attack in case an armed conflict does occur. China, meanwhile, is also urging its armed forces to “prepare for war” – although its main concern is the United States, with Japan figuring in its contingency plans only as an accessory in a superpower conflict. New appointments to the Central Military Commission, China’s highest military decision-making body, after the Party Congress held in October have emphasized not only political loyalty to Xi Jinping but also operational experience, and experience in the East China Sea military theater in particular. Of all the “dangerous storms” that Xi warned the country is facing, a conflict over Taiwan is undoubtedly the most pressing. In such a scenario, it would be difficult to imagine Japan not being dragged in. In the meantime, the ships China regularly dispatches to the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands keep getting bigger and better armed.

Security tensions between China and Japan are continuing their upward trajectory, then. This however does not mean that conflict is imminent. On the contrary, both sides seem determined to avoid a crisis and even improve ties over the next few months, as the Kishida-Xi summit indicated. Domestic politics are pushing both leaders to seek stability in their foreign relations. On the Japanese side, Kishida has seen his approval rating drop significantly after three cabinet ministers had to resign following various scandals. Although there is a political consensus on the need to raise defense spending, the debate about financing, including through tax increases, is proving highly controversial as well. Kishida will therefore have his hands full dealing with unrest within the LDP for the time being, and will be grateful for any diplomatic success he can claim. 

Conflict is not imminent and both side seem determined to avoid a crisis and even improve ties

Xi is facing an even more challenging domestic situation, with the abrupt abandonment of the “zero covid” policy raising fears of a tsunami of cases overwhelming the country’s healthcare system even as the economy faces severe difficulties due to the lingering effect of months of lockdowns, real estate and tech sectors slowdowns, and global recession fears. Faced with such momentous challenges at home, it is no surprise that Xi is seeking to stabilize relations not only with Japan but with the United States and its other allies as well.

The prospects for short-term stability in Sino-Japanese relations are therefore good, even as security tensions accumulate. Looking further ahead, however, a clash between China and Japan cannot be ruled out. The risks of a confrontation are in fact rising along with uncertainties about the fate of Taiwan. Even if such a catastrophe can be avoided, the day where security issues cause a diplomatic breakdown and seriously endanger economic relations, which have for the moment largely remained immune to countervailing geopolitical winds, may well come. At the same time, it is difficult to imagine a genuine improvement in Sino-Japanese ties under current conditions. The year ahead is nevertheless more likely than not to see some positive momentum in bilateral relations, even if what the two sides can achieve remains limited. 

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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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