Japan and China will be fine… for now

Author: Corey Wallace, University of Auckland

Much concern has been expressed in recent days about the danger that Chinese and Japanese nationalism poses to peace in East Asia.

But there is a need to go beyond treating nationalism as a one-dimensional phenomenon, to look at how tensions are being managed in the context of domestic circumstances and to consider the future of Sino-Japanese relations in light of these tensions.

Recent anti-Japanese protests in Chinese cities have been viscerally disturbing. But rather than challenging the socio-political order, the recent outbreak of anger toward Japan actually served at least two useful purposes for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Not only did it allow the public to let off steam ahead of this year’s CCP leadership transition, which is taking place in the context of a deteriorating economy, but the timing of the protests could not have been better. They served as a ‘mass distraction’ from Gu Kailai’s sentencing, which, after a one-day trial little over a week before, conveniently took place precisely at the height of the demonstrations. Despite the rather sympathetic narrative built around her trial by the Chinese media, the ‘compassionate’ sentence — which was always going to be handed down to ensure factional peace within the CCP — would have inevitably drawn unwanted attention to elite corruption and the politics of privilege that have hurt the party’s image in recent years.

Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara’s plan to use government funds to purchase the Senkaku Islands also looks to be an expression of anti-Chinese nationalist sentiment. Ishihara seems to have stumbled onto his first popular cause since the 1990s and is not going to give it up easily. But rather than being merely a subject of raw nationalist sentiment, many Japanese see the Senkaku Islands as a litmus test for the likely future dynamics of Sino-Japanese relations, and therefore support a robust Japanese approach. A repeat of the 2010 Senkakus incident, when the Japanese government gave in to overwhelming Chinese pressure, would have surely radicalised the foreign-policy debate in Japan.

Despite appearances, these tensions are actually being managed by the two sides. Prior to the expected landing of the Hong Kong activists it was reported in Japan that, during the CCP’s crucial Beidaihe summer retreat, a consensus decision was made to use non-military tools to ‘resolve’ the territorial issue. This suggests that the situation may be able to return to how it was originally managed under the pre-2010 informal understanding between the two sides; indeed, Prime Minister Noda’s actions in arresting the protestors and quickly deporting them are consistent with what the Chinese would have expected under this prior agreement. Notably, even before the broken windscreen glass had been cleared from China’s city roads, officials from China, Japan and South Korea had agreed to detach the negotiation of the three-way FTA from the individual territorial disputes. Noda then denied permission to Tokyo authorities to land on the islands to conduct a survey in anticipation of purchase, and it was then announced that the government itself would purchase the islands. This represents an uneasy, but acceptable in the short term, compromise between both governments.

The longer-term dynamics will, however, be more challenging for the two governments, and 2013 may be a critical year for the evolution of Sino-Japanese relations. Japan’s most recent defence white paper expressed not unreasonable concern over how the leadership transition would impact on China’s foreign policy and the nature of the relationship between the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and the civilian government. While the Chinese government reacted aggressively to this apparent ‘interference’ in its domestic affairs, the white paper took a reasonably moderate and patient tone and did not call for any radical changes in Japan’s defence posture or spending. This is despite the aggressive overtones coming from some Chinese-government quarters during the same period: for example, in 2012 a CCP-affiliated publication raised the possibility of contesting Japanese sovereignty over Okinawa, the PLA Navy held military exercises simulating the retaking of the Senkaku Islands, and a variety of other provocative statements were made by high-ranking military officials in China.

If such rhetoric persists beyond the CCP’s leadership transition — and if China’s naval modernisation in particular is increasingly tied to the resolution of regional maritime issues — the likely result will be the first significant increase in Japanese defence spending after many years of incremental reductions. In recent years, popular politicians such as Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto have called for a nationwide debate on Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution, and both major parties have argued for the need to look at the issue of collective self-defence. The direction in which Xi Jinping takes China’s foreign policy in 2013 is likely to have an important impact on Japan’s future debate on its security policy and its long-term regional relations.

Corey Wallace is a PhD candidate at the Department of Political Science, the University of Auckland.

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  • Oleg Timofeev

    Noda and Hu will meet in Vladivostok on the APEC-2012. It’s too (neo)functional for economics and trade to spill over politics, security, history and other sensitive issues.

    • Oleg, many thanks for your comment. I agree this is the case for the time being, although the Japanese took the unusual move recently of ending the currency swap with Korea, saying that the time for separation of politics and economics may be over. I have noticed that the tone in Japan, even among moderates has become very pessimistic. If current relations persist this pessimism may come to influence Japan’s broader foreign policy, including its security policy.