Growing Sino-Japanese Tensions and the Risk to East Asian Security

Publication: China Brief Volume: 5 Issue: 16

It is always hard to manage the rise of a revisionist great power, especially when it has an authoritarian government. Last century, for example, Germany wanted too much too soon. Similarly, today’s China wants too much too soon, and China’s leaders are miscalculating ― not least in relation to Japan.

China’s interests would best be served by a quiescent, neutral Japan that China could control by virtue of proximity. For China, these opportunities existed after the end of the Cold War. Japan’s economy stagnated, sapping confidence. Moreover, there were strong pacifist and anti-militarist elements in Japan, as well as pan-Asia sentiments, that China could have built upon. After all, China and Japan had become quasi-allies in the latter stages of the Cold War because in 1972 the United States and China had moved into strategic alignment in order to oppose growing Soviet power that threatened them both.

Indeed, Deng Xiaoping famously said that the Sino-Japanese dispute over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands in the East China Sea should be left for future generations to resolve. Of course, Deng had long understood that the USSR could not sustain huge levels of military spending on the basis of a command economy. So Deng set China on a different course, seeking to enjoy the benefits of integration in the global economy while maintaining party control.

Deng also believed that China should build up its wealth and power gradually, while not causing others to fear them. Then one day the region would wake up and find China as the new Middle Kingdom, and have no choice but to accommodate the new reality. As a Long March veteran, Deng had the authority to insist that the military be the last of his “four modernizations.”

But today China’s leaders are driving Japan further into U.S. arms than would otherwise be the case. Since the end of the Cold War, China has been aggravating Japan, and now seems surprised at the result. That is not what Deng Xiaoping would have recommended, and it shows weakness at the top in Beijing.

Japan was quick to accommodate China after the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, not least for economic reasons. The Emperor visited China in 1992, and made an apology for the Second World War. At the time, many Japanese were asking why the US still needed bases in Japan now that the Cold War was over. Some influential Japanese even seemed to think that Japan could retain the alliance and get rid of the bases.

As the consequence of the collapse of Soviet power, China was enjoying much greater strategic latitude. The Soviet retreat from Mongolia, from where its forces had visibly threatened Beijing, was the kind of strategic rout usually seen only after defeat in a major war. To China’s south, Vietnam was deprived of its Soviet protector, and forced to come to terms with China.

Secure on its land frontiers, China was soon pressing on its maritime frontiers in the East and South China Sea. Early in 1992, China’s parliament reasserted extensive territorial claims in these waters. It also asserted China’s right to use force against two U.S. allies ― Japan and the Philippines.

China was emboldened when the Philippine Senate forced the U.S. to leave its base at Subic Bay. That stretched U.S. maritime mobility, including in relation to the defense of Taiwan. And it was not long before China was ensconced on Mischief Reef, well within the Philippines’ 200 nautical mile Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ). Since then, China has probed for soft spots in the U.S.-Philippine relationship, enjoying considerable success as shown by a growing defense connection. And as elsewhere, China is wielding its growing economic influence and diplomatic skill as instruments of state power.

No government in Tokyo can afford to ignore what is happening strategically on these vital islands on the “first island chain.” Because Taiwan screens the seaward approaches to Japan from the West, Japan was quick to take it as a spoil of the 1894-95 naval war with China. And few in Japan have forgotten the USS Queenfish, which lurked in the Bashi Channel in the closing stages of the Second World War and sank an inordinate amount of Japanese shipping vessels. Currently, protection of the sea lanes from the Gulf is a vital national interest.

Thus China’s missile launches across the Taiwan Strait (meant to intimidate the recalcitrant island in 1996 when it was having its first presidential election) made an indelible impact on Japan. And when China railed against U.S.-Japanese plans for missile defense, that made the Japanese public aware that Chinese missiles target Japan and not just Taiwan.

In June 2005, China’s successful launch of a JL-2 submarine launched ballistic missile was front page news in Japan. That launch showed China’s considerable progress toward achieving a secure second strike capability against the United States.

China’s support for North Korea has also contributed to the growing perception in Japan of a threat from China. In 1998, North Korea’s launch of the long-range Taepodong missile over Japan had much the same effect on Japan as the 1957 Sputnik launch had on the United States. In both cases, it was not the payload that was significant, but the substantial improvement in launch capabilities that had been revealed. Since then, North Korea has engaged in ever more dangerous nuclear brinkmanship.

China has helped arm North Korea with missiles, and very likely helped with its nuclear program as well. Countries do not usually arm others with nuclear weapons, but there are important exceptions. China certainly helped Pakistan acquire nuclear weapons as well as missiles, with the purpose of keeping India tied down in the subcontinent. In helping to arm North Korea, China also sought to keep a lid on Japanese ambition.

But a ‘borrowed knife’ strategy becomes dangerous if one cannot be sure of being able to control the knife. China has been unable to control North Korea, or prevent it from acting in ways that threaten China’s own interests, not least in relation to Japan. Because of the growing sense of threat from North Korea’s dangerous nuclear ambitions, it is no longer taboo to talk about nuclear weapons in Japan ― even though it is most likely that Japan will choose to remain America’s strategic dependant.

Moreover, China’s provocative behavior toward Japan is now a key element in Japanese domestic politics as the choice for a Koizumi successor looms. Last December, a Chinese Han submarine showed considerable strategic ambition by encircling Guam, causing alarm bells to ring in Tokyo. Indeed, when a continental power occupying the central geographical position in its region starts to manifest signs of bluewater ambition, it is inevitable that alarm bells will go off in the capitals of the maritime powers and all those who depend on them for protection.

Meanwhile, despite growing economic interdependence, Sino-Japanese tensions continue to rise in relation to the contested waters of the East China Sea ― tensions over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai islands (also claimed by Taiwan); and conflicting EEZ claims fueled by growing tensions over gas drilling by China.

In April this year, new tensions arose when China opposed Japan’s ambition to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. China encouraged anti-Japanese demonstrations over the changes to Japanese history texts, as well as Prime Minister Koizumi’s continued visits to the controversial Yasukuni shrine. Aware that protests might spin out of control, the regime then put a lid on things, but not before these demonstrations engendered substantial negative impact among the Japanese public.

As a consequence of all this, the successor to Koizumi is likely to be much more strongly anti-China than Koizumi himself. One of the frontrunners is Shinzo Abe, grandson of former Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke. Abe makes a point of visiting Yasukuni on the 15 of August each year, the most inflammatory date possible.

So what is to be done? There is no point in denying that Yasukuni is a problem. The shrine is an inflammatory, nationalist site, seeking to justify Japan’s behavior in World War II. (An engine from the notorious Thai-Burma railway is there, with a plaque commemorating its role in the “liberation of East Asia”.) Former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone has put forth the sensible suggestion that Japan find a less controversial shrine to commemorate its war dead. He argues that tensions over Yasukuni are helping China round up South Korea and point it at Japan, thus at the same time widening deep cracks in the U.S.-ROK relationship. It remains to be seen whether Koizumi’s stubbornness will allow Nakasone to walk him back from this affair.

There is also a risk for the United States of “entanglement” in the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands issue. Although the U.S. does not acknowledge the sovereignty of Japan (or any other party) over these islands, they do come within the ambit of the U.S.-Japan security treaty. Thus a right wing government in Japan could be tempted to provoke a Chinese response, hoping to embroil the U.S. in conflict with China. Not likely perhaps, but not unthinkable either.

As a global power, the United States will see its strategic interests in global terms, while the security interests of the other players are more regionally concentrated. Still, these growing tensions in East Asia put a premium on Washington’s ability to think and act strategically, at a time when the outcome in Iraq remains in the balance, and the Iranian nuclear issue is looming.