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Senkakus a harbinger for Japanese shift on China policy?

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In Brief

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.


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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.

7 responses to “Senkakus a harbinger for Japanese shift on China policy?”

  1. I would be interested in knowing your opinion about the following. Although it is commonly understood that PM Noda “nationalized” the islands to remove them from the hands of rightist Tokyo mayor Ishihara and maintain the status quo, and China presumably knows this, China has challenged this with destructive demonstrations, not participating in the IMF meetings in Tokyo, etc. Could it be that China has (also) changed its stance toward Japan?

    • Thanks for your comment. China’s actions in 2012 seem to include the same type of measures that it has used against Japan on earlier occasions. However, the intensity of some of these measures is unprecedented, e.g. the increased presence of maritime surveillance ships in the area. Still, so far the Chinese government does not appear to have altered its basic stance on the issue, i.e. shelving the dispute while prompting Japan to recognize its existence. As we point out above, the Japanese government has also not departed from its basic stance (yet), i.e. insisting that a dispute doesn’t exist, while de facto shelving it.

      • Dear Mr. Jerden,

        Thank you for taking the time for to respond to my comment. My impressions are from the media presentation here in Japan, which may be giving the impression that changes in stance are occurring when they are not, that is, the presentation may be too sensationalist.

  2. Very timely piece and I believe that your analysis and conclusions are appropriate – the tone has changed in Japan, although I believe this is the culmination of the last few years of tension both in terms of how it has affected the public and even the political class. I would say next year is important at not only the political level but also in terms of Japan’s security community. Taking the longer view, as represented by the Defense of Japan white papers, they have for a few years now implicitly indicated that what happens with the next transition and the policies adopted by the Xi administration, particularly regarding increased maritime activity, PLA and civilian, in and around Okinawa, will have an impact upon Japan’s own defense planning. Thus 2013 could be crucial on a number of levels. In regards to your response to a comment above – perhaps at the diplomatic level not much has changed in China but a closer reading of some of the internal political dynamics in China suggest that something may well be changing there also. The civilian-military relationship nexus will be important to watch in the long-term, as will the general relationship between the civilian hardliners aligned with Jiang Zemin and those aligned more with Hu and Wen. It’s hard to know for sure what is happening, and what impact it will have, of course…and that is half of the problem!

    • Many thanks for your comment. We agree that events in 2013 – or perhaps rather the next general election in Japan – may provide a kind of watershed in the country’s China policy. We also agree that the Chinese policy debate has become more diverse, and that criticisms against moderate policies have become more widespread. One problem is that many people conflate change in the debate with change in policy, although we agree that the former could very well forebode the latter. Many observers also tend to imply that Japan’s policy has changed or will change as a result of a shift in Chinese policies, and although there is obviously some truth to that, we think this belief run the risk of grossly underestimating the significance of Japanese narratives and identity in steering the interpretation of whatever stimuli is coming from China.

      • To be sure, I certainly do agree with the above. Hence why I have found your collected work very useful in my own PhD research 🙂 The connection between public opinion, political debate and policy change in both countries is more complex than many North American observers (IMO) tend to admit. Nevertheless, the general tone in Japan at least is more sensitive than I have seen it for some time. On the other hand, domestic affairs (in both nations) may well come to dominate political discourse soon enough and we may well be back to “business as usual” in 2013 rather than a watershed.

  3. a well balanced Phd-worthy comment… perhaps a slight gloss on:

    “Japan has accommodated the rise of China.”

    if one resigns oneself to the inevitable, is that the same as “accomodated?” has Sweden “accomodated the rise of China.”

    forces of nature… irresistible.

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