Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions

Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions

International Crisis Group



Enmity between China and Japan is hardening into a confrontation that appears increasingly difficult to untangle by diplomacy. Positions on the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku island group are wide apart, and politically viable options to bridge the gap remain elusive. New frictions have arisen. China’s announcement in November 2013 of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), overlapping that of Japan’s and covering the disputed islands, deepened Tokyo’s anxiety that Beijing desires both territory and to alter the regional order. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 triggered a bitter argument as to whether Japan has fully atoned for its Second World War aggression, a still vivid sore in the region. Amid heightened suspicion and militarisation of the East China Sea and its air space, the risks of miscalculation grow. Leadership in both countries needs to set a tone that prioritises diplomacy to calm the troubled waters: November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit might provide such an opportunity.

A perception is gaining ground in Tokyo that the still new administration of President Xi Jinping is particularly assertive and that China seeks to revive its hegemonic “Middle Kingdom” status in the region. China perceives the Abe government as the “troublemaker” that stokes tensions in order to rearm Japan. Insensitive actions and strident rhetoric increasingly appear to be replacing diplomacy. Both sides progressively consider the other as a primary national security threat and are boosting their military capabilities and adjusting their defence postures accordingly.

Although not likely to attempt to wrest control of the islands fully from Japan any time soon, Beijing acts upon the belief that the balance of power is shifting in its favour and that a strength-driven approach can pressure Japan into accepting incremental changes over time. Tokyo, appearing to agree that China has long-term power advantages, seeks to tighten its U.S. alliance and unite regional countries around rules-based opposition to unilateral changes.

Presumably, neither desires an armed conflict, but they face heightened risk of an unplanned clash. The danger spans three theatres – the waters near the disputed islands; the high seas of the Western Pacific; and the airspace over the East China Sea – and involves law enforcement vessels, fishing boats, naval fleets and military aircraft. While it appears that patrol patterns around the islands have stabilised and risky behaviour there has eased since late 2013, military encounters in the other two theatres have become more frequent and dangerous.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up exercises in offshore waters in its quest for blue water capability, coming as a consequence into increasing contact with the Japan Self-Defence Forces (SDF). The sides have starkly different interpretations of their operational rights and limitations. Japan insists on rights to surveillance in international waters. China has demonstrated a willingness to take risks to keep foreign vessels and aircraft away from its fleets. Repeated close calls have resulted. Since China announced an ADIZ that overlaps with Japan’s, there has been a spike in the number of encounters by military aircraft, with both sides accusing the other of provocative behaviour.

Tokyo has been more active in pursuing crisis management and seeking out mitigation mechanisms but is concerned not to do so in a way that compromises its sovereignty claims or legitimises China’s ADIZ. Beijing says that the current political environment is not conducive to engagement on this front. Even though awareness of the risk of unplanned clashes has been growing in both capitals, and both have accepted a multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), neither unofficial discussion nor the non-binding code has yet to reduce close calls.

The November 2014 APEC summit in Beijing may offer an opportunity for President Xi and Prime Minister Abe to meet and set the tone for negotiations on establishing and implementing means to manage the tension. Both sides would need to commit to handle the fragile relationship with extreme care and show restraint around the flashpoints, including the islands dispute and historical issues. Bilateral relations urgently require a sufficiently long period of calm to pursue discreet diplomatic initiatives.


To avoid unplanned clashes and prevent escalation in case of such an incident

To the governments of the People’s Republic of China and Japan:

1.  Refrain from escalatory actions near the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands; in particular:

a) give clear instructions to the China Coast Guard (CCG) and the Japan Coast Guard (JCG) respectively to avoid collisions and conflict; and

b) China should refrain from chasing Japanese fishing vessels and send no aircraft, including drones, into the airspace above or near the islands;

2.  China should instruct the PLA navy and air force to refrain from risk-seeking and avoid collisions during patrol, exercise and surveillance activities on the high seas of the Western Pacific and in the air space above the East China Sea; and Japan, in the absence of a clear bilateral understanding on rules of military encounters, should instruct the Maritime and Air Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to take extra caution to avoid collisions or conflict with the PLA.

3.  Japan should continue to urge resumption of the multi-agency, high-level bilateral maritime affairs consultation process, and China should drop political conditions for resumption.

4.  Prioritise implementation of the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES); utilise active bilateral and multilateral track-2 and track-1.5 forums to clarify its application and operationalisation; and institute regular working-level dialogues (preferably closed-door) between defence ministries to review CUES implementation, so violations can be addressed bilaterally, away from media attention.

5.  Operationalise the defence communications mechanism that has been agreed on but the implementation of which was interrupted by the islands dispute. China should remove political conditions for such actions.

6.  Establish hotline communication channels between the JCG and the CCG and between the National Security Council (Japan) and the National Security Commission (China); ensure that these remain open at all times and that the persons/ units responsible for them have authority to speedily reach decision-makers and frontline personnel in an emergency; and utilise these channels in case of an incident or near-collision to defuse an emergency before resorting to public criticism.

To third-party governments and non-governmental institutions, such as research organisations and think tanks with ties to both parties:

7.  Host forums and symposiums that bring the parties together for discussions on crisis management and mitigation, including by;

a) organising workshops on best practices to avoid incidents at sea; encouraging participation by both coast guards and militaries, especially commanders in charge of frontline operations; and

b) utilising multilateral platforms such as the Western Pacific Naval Symposium to push for and review implementation of CUES.

8.  Organise multilateral naval exercises, involving both the PLA and the SDF, on CUES implementation.

To create an environment conducive to a bilateral meeting of the Chinese president and Japanese prime minister during the APEC summit in Beijing

To the governments of the People’s Republic of China and Japan:

9.  Open up high-level political channels, with direct access to the leaders.

10.  Take actions to lower the political temperature including by:

a) China dialing down anti-Japan rhetoric to both domestic audiences and the international community, to allow room for diplomatic and unofficial engagement; and delinking the Second World War history from the islands dispute; and

b) Japan giving assurance that Abe will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine again as prime minister; and Abe and other senior officials avoiding comments that appear to stray from the Murayama Statement or otherwise suggest revisionist views on the Second World War history.

The International Crisis Group kindly allows Modern Tokyo Times to publish their esteemed articles based on important research. Please check the website of this highly valued international organization at http://www.crisisgroup.org/

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