Japan and China – has the act got nasty?

Japan and China – has the act got nasty?

Last week’s assertion to the Wall Street Journal by Shinzo Abe that he will “stand up to China” is seemingly just another part in the ongoing drama between China and Japan. Ever since relations were normalized on September 29 1972, the relationship between the two has been rocky at best, and downright hostile at worst, with a number of conflicts throughout the 2000s threatening diplomacy in the region.

However, this time the aggression has a different tone. Abe has not specified a single incident or violation of sovereignty; he spoke out over the conflict of interests in general, commenting that China appeared to be attempting to “change the status quo by force, rather than by rule of law”. This alone was strong rhetoric from Mr. Abe, and it is
likely to be interpreted positively by many others in the Asia-Pacific region, where Japan is trying to establish friendships and positive trade relations with countries that feel threatened by China. Just last month, Japan offered to donate 10 patrol ships to the Philippine coast guard worth approx. $11 million each – this shows a commitment to the Philippines over the South China Sea issue, where China’s claims to sovereignty raised alarm amongst southeast Asian nations.

This alliance building is exactly what China feels threatened by. The new regime under Xi Jinping is seemingly more open than ever before, and with governmental anticorruption initiatives strongly taking hold, there is a renewed confidence of the Chinese people in their government. But it is incendiary comments from Japan such as “but if China opts to take that path, then it won’t be able to emerge peacefully” that keep the Chinese people in a paranoid mentality befitting the Soviet era. Such comments are reported sensationally in Chinese newspapers, analyzed on national media outlets, and disseminated across the whole country. It does not help that a number of US bases are stationed in Japan, and that there has been no official US response or critique of Japanese foreign policy lines with China, apart from occasional and inefficient ‘calls for calm’.

In fact, Kurt Campbell, the man widely seen as the top US diplomat in East Asia, has indicated a number of times that the US will not take sides in the various disputes between Japan and China, such as the Diaoyu, or Senkaku Islands conflict. However, given the US-Japan military axis and the fact that Japan likely remains the US’s most important ally, this neutrality is really nothing more than a façade. In some ways this is arguably positive; it could be said that America’s backing has meant that China is reluctant to employ force against Japan, and thus the US could be described as a stabilizing counterbalance to China’s overwhelming influence in the region. However, in the
event of an emergence of actual hostilities, US military backing might not be exactly forthcoming.

China has, from its claiming of the islands in the 1970s up until now remained relatively calm over the issue; it has attempted to solve the conflict diplomatically and has not yet attempted a full-scale invasion or occupation of any of the islands similar to what Korea did with Dokdo. Yet this is precisely in China’s interest; as it grows stronger as a country and transitions into its superpower state, this kind of fiery rhetoric from Japan will grow weaker and weaker, and the response from China stronger and stronger. Today, it seems highly unlikely that war will emerge between China and Japan, and any statements from either side to the effect that “national sovereignty will be defended by force” should be put down to posturing. However, in some years time, after all diplomatic options are exhausted, it is not unlikely that China would consider a full-scale occupation of the islands. And if, or indeed when that happens, Japan may find itself utterly indefensible.  

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