Authors: Linus Hagström and Björn Jerdén, UI
The ongoing row over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands might appear to be merely the latest chapter in the history of recurring tensions between Japan and China.
Yet the way the issue has been politicised within Japan suggests that a quite different China policy may loom just over the horizon. Developments after the next general election in Japan will provide a litmus test.
Many observers have sought to explain the frequent tensions between the countries as a result of Japan ‘resisting’, ‘containing’, ‘balancing’, or ‘constraining’ China’s rise, either by beefing up its indigenous defence capability (internal balancing) or by strengthening its alliance with the United States (external balancing). But the history of Japanese responses to China’s rise from 1978 to 2011 shows that Japan has largely respected China’s national interests, as they have been laid down in the latter’s grand strategy. Since this grand strategy has been successful in bringing about the remarkable rise of the country it moreover follows that Japan has accommodated the rise of China.
Little of the tension in the Sino–Japanese relationship over the past decades has revolved around or negatively affected China’s fundamental interests. The issues where Japanese leaders have challenged China are all connected to history or historical memory. Examples include visits by Japanese prime ministers to Yasukuni Shrine and the Education Ministry’s acceptance of revisionist history textbooks. Though these matters have caused much resentment in China, it is difficult to argue that they threaten China’s fundamental interests. One could even say that the anti-Japanese sentiment in China — which has been exacerbated by these issues — has enhanced the foundational myths of modern China and lent legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party.
The Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute could be interpreted as similar to the historical memory problems in that it is a case of clashing identities, but it is different in a crucial way: it risks countering one of China’s fundamental interests, namely its ‘territorial integrity’.
During the reform period, since 1978, China has not compromised in any of the territorial disputes over offshore islands in which it has been involved. But aside from a few episodes of military escalation it has generally chosen to delay these disputes to avoid upsetting regional stability. Japanese policy so far has largely cooperated with this delaying strategy.
Japan has accommodated China’s rise since 1978, more or less independently from the ups and downs that have otherwise characterised their political relationship. Yet the current dispute should remind us that this situation may not continue indefinitely. Increasingly loud calls within Japan to challenge China on the islands dispute could very well foreshadow a turning point in Japan’s China policy.
The next general election in Japan, which must be held before August 2013, will provide a litmus test. Although the present tensions were directly triggered by the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government’s nationalisation of the disputed islands, the purchase seems to have been aimed to deter nationalist Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara from closing a deal on the capital’s behalf. Unlike in 2010, the DPJ government has tried its best to placate the dispute by preventing Japanese nationals from landing on the islands, declining Ishihara’s offer to fund infrastructure there, and contacting the Chinese leadership when necessary. Japan continued to pursue its policy of depoliticising the issue while insisting that the Senkakus are Japan’s ‘inherent territory’ and that there ‘exists no territorial dispute with China’.
This policy is consistent with that championed by successive Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) governments since the 1970s. The recent LDP presidential race sent mixed signals to Beijing regarding the potential continuity of this policy. On the one hand, candidates criticised the DPJ for ruining ties with China and boasted of their personal networks across the Sea of Japan. On the other hand, eventual winner Shinzo Abe said that he would consider building a port of refuge and facilities for permanently stationing public officials on the disputed islands. The runner-ups made similar remarks. And the leader of the most likely coalition partner, the Japan Restoration Party’s Toru Hashimoto, also criticised the DPJ government’s failure to use the recent incident as a springboard for stationing coast guard permanently on the islands.
Abe succeeded Junichiro Koizumi as LDP president and prime minister in 2006, after five years of tense relations with China. At the time many observers expected his history of anti-Chinese statements to translate into an even more confrontational China policy. Yet as he took the helm Abe explicitly sought to ameliorate Japan–China relations, and there is a chance of a similar back-flip if Abe were to become the next prime minister.
But Abe and Hashimoto’s statements, such as those referred to above, could prove hard to back down from. If an LDP-led government comes to power and follows through on these pledges it would be challenging China on one of its fundamental interests. Bejing’s reaction would most likely be harsh. A tougher stance on the island dispute could possibly also be a harbinger for Japan to challenge China on other issues. This is, of course, what nationalist politicians like Ishihara want: they have long been calling for Japan to stop being deferential toward Beijing. But such a development could mean the end of Japan’s active accommodation of China’s rise and could have far-reaching implications for regional security.
Linus Hagström is Associate Professor of political science and Senior Research Fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
Björn Jerdén is a PhD candidate at Stockholm University and a Research Associate at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs.
This article utilises research from the authors’ article ‘Rethinking Japan’s China Policy: Japan as an Accommodator in the Rise of China, 1978–2011’ published here in the Journal of East Asian Studies.