China and Japan: Will the Twain Never Meet?

20 Oct, 2014    ·   4703

Prof Srikanth Kondapalli contexualises bilateral tensions in light of the prospective meeting between the two heads of state

Srikanth Kondapalli
Srikanth Kondapalli
Distinguished Fellow

With prospects for a bilateral meeting between Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit at Beijing in November brightening, the East Asian security situation may after the war of words and deeds in East China Sea over the past four years. Already, both the foreign ministers met at Naypyidaw in August. However, China Daily’s survey found that nearly 53 per cent Chinese believe that war is imminent, although Genron’s Japanese survey indicated that only 29 per cent Japanese see conflict emerging between the two. The rise in tensions between the two since the nationalisation of the Senkaku Islands by the central government in Tokyo made China's Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua state in mid-June 2014 that bilateral relations are “suffering the toughest-ever situation.” However, it is not clear whether Japan would accept the two conditions of Beijing, viz., not to visit theYasukuni Shrine again (PM Abe visited in December 2013) and Japan should consider that there is indeed a dispute in the East China Sea over the islands.

Bilateral Tensions
Tensions have been mounting for a long time now despite economic interdependence. Recently, these were triggered by the intrusion of a 15-member crew led by Zhan Qixiong of the trawler Minjinyu 5179 on 07 September 2010 at the Senkaku Islands administered by Japan, but claimed by China. Later, such incidents continued to test the bilateral relations. On 24 August 2011, for instance, a Chinese vessel marched past the Japan Coast Guard patrol boat. On 13 December 2012, two months after the Japanese government purchased the islands, a Chinese surveillance airplane entered Japanese airspace near the Senkaku Islands. China was also critical of PM Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, the first by a serving Japanese prime minister since 2006.

A series of incidents in the last few months indicate that both Japan and China have not reached equilibrium in their bilateral relations but have fanned out into a bilateral war of words that has spilled over into regional security domains. On 04 June, the G-7 Summit meeting at Brussels declared that it is opposed to "any unilateral attempt by any party to assert its territorial or maritime claims through the use of intimidation, coercion or force," with reference to the tensions in the East China Sea. This statement was not explicit about either Japan or China, indicating China’s back-channel diplomacy with UK, France and Germany. The next day, the Lower House of the Japanese Diet decided to pass a resolution critical of Chinese air intrusions into Japanese airspace.

The Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on 11 June that his government had lodged a protest over China’s application to register the historic records of Japan's wartime sex slaves and the Nanjing Massacre with UNESCO. He asked China to withdraw it, but in vain. On the same day, the Foreign Affairs Committee of the Japanese House of Representatives passed a resolution condemning China's Haiyang Shiyou 981 drilling activities in the disputed South China Sea (also opposed by Vietnam). Again, on the same day, China sent aircraft as close as 30 metres from Japanese defense aircraft in the East China Sea. To recall, on 24 May, a similar incident was reported by the Japanese. China said that two Japanese airplanes, OP-3C and YS-11EB, intruded in the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone on 24 May to scout and interfere with China-Russia naval drills. On 29 May, a Chinese frigate locked its fire-control radar on the Japanese destroyer JS Sawagiri near a gas field in the disputed East China Sea in addition to targeting a P3C aircraft. Later, Japan’s Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera protested against these incidents. Japanese defence ministry reports stated that the Japanese fighter jets were scrambled in response to foreign aircraft 810 times in 2013, more than half of them Chinese. A Chinese patrol boat was spotted in the Japanese EEZ on 13 June. Later, on 27 June, a Chinese boat sank north of the Senkaku Islands, sinking a number of personnel.

On 31 June, the Japanese cabinet passed a resolution that allows Japan to exercise the right to collective self-defense and take military action to defend other countries even though the countryitself is not under attack. In the backdrop of the Philippines’ struggle against China’s march in the South China Sea, Japan’s decision meant that it could offer at least non-combat assistance.

That the war of words is expanding the ambit is also indicated by China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying when she criticised Japan for under-reporting its nuclear materials. She said that Japan should “address the imbalance between its demand and supply of sensitive nuclear materials.” The Japanese government had not declared about 640 kg of unused plutonium in its annual report for the IAEA in 2012 and 2013, an amount enough to make 80 nuclear bombs. Japan claims to own 44 tons of plutonium, while the actual amount is 45 tons, said Japan's Kyodo News Agency. The unreported plutonium is part of the plutonium-uranium mixed oxide (MOX) fuel placed at an offline reactor in a nuclear plant in Saga Prefecture, southern Japan.

The consequences of the above are spilling over into the economic domain. For instance, foreign direct investment from Japan into China slumped 42.2 per cent in 2013 from the previous year. So did bilateral trade figures, with Japan choosing to expand trade and investments with Vietnam other Southeast Asian countries and India.