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Japan-China relations stand at ground zero

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In Brief

I have serious reservations about the way the Chinese government acted toward Japan over the incident involving a violation of territorial waters near the Senkaku Islands by a Chinese trawler, and especially, after the boat's captain was arrested.

In Japan, public opinion has been highly critical of the government led by the Democratic Party of Japan, with its decisions described as ‘a national disgrace brought about through diplomatic defeat.’ Admittedly, many measures taken by the government were half-hearted, from the lack of any decision by prosecutors to indict the captain, to the handling of a Japan Coast Guard video of the collision between the trawler and two patrol vessels.


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One cannot help but conclude that Japan is either still clumsy in its diplomatic efforts or simply a poor fighter. In comparison, the various measures taken by the Chinese government to apply pressure on Japan can only be described as a diplomatic ‘shock and awe’ campaign.

My take on the incident is as follows:

The captain was arrested by Japanese authorities for allegedly interfering with the duties of public officials. The incident demonstrated that Japan had effective control over the Senkaku Islands by carrying out legal procedures.

In addition, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton clearly stated that any area under the administrative control of Japan would be covered by Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty, which obligates the United States to come to the defence of Japan.

That was a public acknowledgement to the world that the Senkaku Islands were under the effective control of Japan.

On the other hand, China was able to publicly show to the world that ‘a territorial issue’ does exist over the Senkaku Islands, in contrast to Japan repeatedly emphasising that no territorial issue existed.

Viewed in this way, I believe this contest can be said to have ended in a draw.

Of course, I mean a draw in the sense that Japan and China were even in the manner in which they both unexpectedly demonstrated how underdeveloped both of their diplomatic efforts were.

This summer when I visited the Shanghai World Expo 2010, I was struck by a visit to the China pavilion.

The panels on display presented a view that China’s modern history began in 1979 with the economic reform and open door policy. In other words, the past 30 years of economic development and the path to becoming an economic superpower were the genesis of modern China.

However, ‘China’s miracle’ was made possible by the fact that the international environment surrounding China was one of peace and stability. There was no mention of that fact in the panels.

That international environment was fostered by the low-profile stance called for by the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (as well as the peaceful rise doctrine that was an extension of that stance) and the stabilising power of the Japan-US security alliance.

In addition to the Senkaku Islands issue, China has recently created tension with a number of neighbouring maritime nations. This maritime issue is the first critical test to the peaceful rise doctrine at its very roots.

A Chinese friend of mine, a successful entrepreneur, laughed about my concern and said, ‘The peaceful rise concept was one that was taken when China’s standing was weak.’ If that is the case, what will be the principles China employs when it is in a stronger position? Would it be the position discussed at the Central Economic Working Conference held last winter of being ‘a superpower that does not have responsibility forced upon it?’

Of the questions I had which I mentioned earlier, the very first pertains to this point.

The second question I have is about China’s maritime views. If China tries to draw a maritime Maginot line of sorts, by turning the waters of East Asia into its own ‘near sea,’ treating it as surrounding waters and capturing it as a ‘core interest,’ it could lead to gaps within the Asia-Pacific region, which is a maritime civilisation.

At the ASEAN Regional Forum meeting in Hanoi in July, China found itself isolated as the foreign ministers of 12 nations expressed concerns about Beijing’s actions in the South China Sea.

The final question I have concerns the fact that China used economic cards in its retaliatory diplomacy against Japan.

One example is the virtual ban on exports of rare earth metals to Japan. Although Beijing denied any such ban had been imposed, there is no doubt that China used economics as a diplomatic tool, be it the rights to gas fields on the seabed of the East China Sea or the safety of Japanese company employees.

It would be ironic and tragic if the export ban against Japan was the salute to mark China passing Japan as the world’s second biggest economy.

Are the Chinese people aware of the extent to which distrust toward China was triggered in not only Asia, but in the West as well, over China’s indiscriminate economic retaliatory measures?

What is difficult to fathom is why China does not do more to jointly protect and further foster the ‘liberal internationalist order’ that has brought so many benefits to China in terms of currency, trade and maritime interests..

There are still some uncertainties because the emotions of the people are still boiling over. However, if China continues to act as it has, we Japanese will be prepared to engage in a long, long struggle with China.

More specifically, it would involve the following:

Relations with China would have as the main objective the pursuit of practical benefits. That would remain unchanged.

However, we would have to take stock of the dreams, ideals and pursuit of a frontier that Japan held about China after World War II, and especially after diplomatic relations were normalised.

Japan would discard its naïveté, lower its expectations, acquire needed insurance and, in some cases, cut its losses.

China would be treated with respect and moderation. A plain and ordinary level of exchange would be considered acceptable.

Japan would not hold on to the fantasy of creating a ‘mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.’

Japan would be prepared to deal with China with bitter resolve tinged with a form of resignation.

This would also apply to how Japan relates with Taiwan.

In protest against the captain’s arrest, a fishing boat carrying Taiwanese activists entered the waters near the Senkaku Islands. The Taiwanese government dispatched 12 coast guard ships as an escort.

While the ship had to turn around after being stopped by the Japan Coast Guard, the Taiwanese Foreign Ministry issued a statement in protest that said, ‘Japanese ships interfered with the fishing boat and confronted Taiwan coast guard ships.’

The expression of protest against Japan was nothing more than playing with a political fire. Taiwan is emerging as a new risk factor in the Japan-China relationship.

Last week, I was interviewed by the Japan correspondent for a US public broadcasting radio network.

The first question she asked was, ‘For Japan, is the Senkaku shock bigger than the Nixon shocks?’ She was referring to the shocks in the summer of 1971 when US President Richard Nixon unilaterally declared a normalisation of relations with China (without Japan’s knowledge) and stopped gold convertibility of the dollar (which led to a huge appreciation of the yen).

My reply was, ‘It will be much bigger.’ Problems that arise between Japan and the United States can, in the end, be resolved within the framework of the alliance. The alliance is the ballast. However, that cannot be said of the Japan-China relationship. There is always the danger it will roll completely out of control due to even the slightest accident.

It was obvious that a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests simply did not function. It was nothing more than rhetoric. The hot-line between leaders of the two nations also did not operate at the most crucial moment.

Five years ago when violent anti-Japan protests occurred throughout China, I offered a pessimistic view of the future of Japan-China relations. However, compared to those protests, I feel the hubris of an emerging superpower out of China now.

A meeting in Brussels between Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, even if only for 25 minutes, is a first step to escape the ‘anomaly’ that the Japan-China relationship has entered.

However, Japan and China now stand at ground zero, and the landscape is a bleak, vast nothingness.

Yoichi Funabashi is editor in chief, Asahi Shimbun.

This article is an edited version of Yoichi Funabashi’s commentary, which was published on October 9th in the English language Asahi Shimbun.

One response to “Japan-China relations stand at ground zero”

  1. China has done a remarkable job and has brought great benefit to its own people. China will surely be a great power in coming year just like its past. However I am quite skeptical about the future of its neighbours when China is in commanding mode. By just looking at the way China works internally where one party decides everything and not the people in democratic way, I believe that a strong China will behave like a dictator and will not hesitate to pursuit its goal by use of power just like they do against their own people.
    Today they are using economic weapons and then will use military. It is high time that democratic countries like India, Japan, South Korea collaborated economically and militarily to make the region secure from Chinese land/sea garbing ambitions.
    I firmly believe that PLA is getting stronger voice now in China while defining its foreign policies which must be seen with alarm by other nations.
    Japan’s business community has made a great contribution to modern China but all the Japanese effort has gown down the drain.

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