Escalating Tensions: Sino-Japan Relations Strained By Recent Air And Maritime Incursions

In July, Japan had expressed its intent to enhance communication with China. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno emphasized the importance of “building a constructive and stable relationship with China through mutual efforts”

(By Matrika Shukla and Jennifer Philip)

On Saturday, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida expressed caution regarding the recent presence of joint Chinese and Russian bomber flights near Japanese waters. He highlighted the challenging and intricate security environment faced by Japan, emphasizing the seriousness of the situation in the postwar era.

In June, four Chinese and Russian bombers conducted a joint flight near Japan, leading to the deployment of Japanese fighter jets. Although Japan’s airspace was not breached, the Defense Ministry expressed concerns to China and Russia, viewing the incident as a display of military strength.

In a recurring pattern observed in the East China Sea and the Sea of Japan in August 2023, Russian Il-38 reconnaissance aircraft were detected flying in proximity to Japan, prompting Tokyo to dispatch fighter jets last week for interception. This incident occurred shortly after both Russian and Chinese vessels were observed traversing waters near the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako. Such occurrences are frequent, often following significant events. For instance, in May, when Japan hosted Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy at the G-7 summit in Hiroshima, the same Russian Il-38 maritime aircraft was sighted in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan.

Japan has been accustomed to frequent air and maritime intrusions into its territorial space, with China and Russia notably intensifying their joint military training and activities. This trend was evident during the Quad meeting held in May 2022 in Tokyo when Japan scrambled JASDF fighter jets in response to both Chinese H-6 and Russian Tu-95 heavy bombers crossing the Sea of Japan. The frequency of airspace violations in Japan has been on the rise since 2020, with Japanese jets being scrambled 778 times between April 2022 and the end of March 2023, and a total of 1,004 times in 2021.

Despite Japan’s repeated diplomatic complaints to both Beijing and Moscow, there has been limited progress in addressing the issue of air and maritime intrusions. Japan faces the challenge of effectively and assertively communicating its concerns.

In July, Japan had expressed its intent to enhance communication with China. Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno emphasized the importance of “building a constructive and stable relationship with China through mutual efforts,” especially with China’s new Foreign Minister Wang Yi. Japan also aimed to engage in trilateral talks with South Korea.

History of Japan-China Relations

Geographically, China and Japan are separated by a relatively narrow stretch of ocean. China has significantly influenced Japan across various aspects, including its writing system, architecture, culture, religion, philosophy, and legal traditions. However, historical events played a crucial role in shaping their relationship.

In the mid-19th century, when Western nations compelled Japan to open trade, Japan embarked on a path of modernization, perceiving China as a civilization vulnerable to Western forces, exemplified by the First and Second Opium Wars. This perception contributed to Japan’s view of China as an antiquated power.

The scars of World War II, marked by Japanese war crimes like the Nanjing massacre, where Chinese civilians were brutally killed, continue to strain Sino-Japanese relations. China insists that Japan has not fully acknowledged and taken responsibility for these atrocities. During the Cold War, the Sino-Soviet Treaty and the U.S.-Japan Security Treaty influenced the relationship. China viewed Japan as a potential threat due to its alliance with the United States.

Following the establishment of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in 1949, the dynamics between China and Japan underwent a significant transformation. The relationship evolved from a state of hostility and minimal contact to one characterized by cordiality and extensive cooperation in various fields, though the extent and nature of this cooperation are subject to citation.

Despite Japan’s defeat and the dismantling of its military power, the PRC maintained a cautious view of Japan as a potential threat, particularly due to the presence of United States Forces Japan in the region. An enduring concern in Sino-Japanese relations for the PRC has been the possibility of Japan’s re-militarization. Conversely, some Japanese have expressed apprehension about the increasing economic and military power of the PRC. The rise of China in both economic and military spheres has raised concerns in Japan about regional stability and security, contributing to a complex and nuanced relationship between the two nations.

In the latter half of the 20th century, economic ties between China and Japan strengthened, with Japan becoming a key investor in China’s development. In the 21st century, maritime disputes in the East China Sea, particularly over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, have been a consistent source of tension. Both China and Japan claim sovereignty over these uninhabited islands, leading to naval and aerial encounters, and increasing the risk of miscalculation. The resource-rich waters and strategic maritime routes further amplify the significance of these disputes.  Apart from the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, territorial disputes in the East China Sea involve contested maritime boundaries. These disputes often lead to confrontations between maritime law enforcement vessels and military forces, escalating tensions and creating a volatile security environment in the region.

Japan has deepened its security cooperation with the United States, reinforcing the bilateral alliance to deter potential threats and enhance regional stability. Japan’s alignment with the United States, particularly in the realm of security, is a significant development. Both nations share concerns about China’s increasing assertiveness and its impact on regional stability. This alignment includes joint military exercises, intelligence sharing, and a commitment to uphold a rules-based international order in the Indo-Pacific.

Recognizing the need to counterbalance China’s influence, Japan has actively sought regional partnerships. Strengthening ties with countries like Australia, India, and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) contributes to a broader strategy aimed at fostering a united front against potential challenges to regional security.

Further, even today the historical issues, stemming from Japan’s actions during World War II, including the use of “comfort women,” continue to impact relations. Despite various attempts at reconciliation, perceptions of Japan’s acknowledgment and apology for wartime atrocities remain contentious in China, contributing to a lingering sense of mistrust and resentment.

Japan-China Communications Face Challenges

The pressing need for better crisis communication between China and Japan has become evident due to several incidents between the two nations. The recently established hotline connecting Japanese and Chinese defense authorities, creating a direct channel between their defense ministers, is a positive step toward enhancing crisis communication. This initiative is part of a broader bilateral communication mechanism, representing significant progress in managing tensions arising from disputes in the East China Sea, where the potential for confrontation and escalation exists.

However, it remains uncertain whether this mechanism has successfully mitigated the risks it was designed to address, such as preventing accidental collisions and averting the transformation of unforeseen events into military clashes or diplomatic issues. Despite these uncertainties, the establishment of such channels for direct communication is a welcome development in fostering understanding and preventing misunderstandings between the two nations.

In December 2022, Japan released revised security documents, including the National Security Strategy and Defense Buildup Plan, signaling a significant shift in its security stance. The key changes include heightened language expressing serious concern about China’s activities, a commitment to minimum self-defense measures, and a defense budget increase to over 40 trillion yen. The papers identify China, Russia, and North Korea as major threats, deviating from the 2013 strategy that emphasized cooperation with Russia. The ability to counterstrike, primarily against Chinese short-range missiles, is framed as a minimum self-defense measure. The documents also highlight Taiwan as crucial, stressing the importance of peaceful resolution in cross-strait issues. However, the lack of specific actions and budgetary details raises questions about the strategy’s implementation.

Final Words

The Chinese government asserts that the relationship between China and Japan has faced strains, primarily due to Japan’s perceived reluctance to fully acknowledge and address its wartime crimes to China’s satisfaction. According to China, historical issues related to Japan’s actions during wartime continue to impact bilateral relations.

In contrast, the Japanese government attributes the strained relationship to the expansion and assertive actions of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA). Japan contends that the military activities and behavior of the PLA, particularly in the East China Sea, contribute significantly to the tensions between the two nations. From Japan’s perspective, regional security concerns and territorial disputes are key factors influencing the dynamics of their relationship with China.

Leaders from both China and Japan have made efforts to alleviate this tension through face-to-face meetings. Recognizing the complex history and the importance of fostering a more positive relationship, Chinese and Japanese leaders have engaged in several rounds of diplomatic talks in an attempt to build a cordial understanding between the two countries. Despite economic cooperation and shared regional interests, the historical legacy and territorial disputes continue to cast a shadow over their relationship, requiring ongoing diplomatic efforts to navigate and mitigate tensions.

As of 2023, the relationship between China and Japan appears to be at a turning point. Japan has adopted a firmer stance towards China, indicating a shift in its foreign policy dynamics. One notable aspect of this change is Japan’s increased willingness to support the United States in defending Taiwan from potential Chinese aggression. This move suggests a strategic alignment between Japan and the U.S. in response to regional security concerns.

Additionally, Japan has sought agreements with other nations, such as the Philippines, as part of efforts to counterbalance China’s growing influence in the region. These diplomatic maneuvers underscore Japan’s proactive approach to regional security and its commitment to forging alliances to address shared concerns.

Enhancing communication between policymakers and frontline personnel is crucial for Japan and China. Urgent efforts should be directed toward updating procedures and perceptions through exchanges and drills involving uniformed military personnel. This proactive approach aims to prevent conflicts arising from unforeseen circumstances and fosters a better understanding between Japan and China.