Rising Tension Between China and Japan

Published on Author Mitchell Brister
Source: NYTimes
“Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, who said his country’s relationship with China was in a ‘similar situation’ to the one between Germany and Britain before World War I.”

China and Japan, long time rivals who represent the second and third largest economies in the world, are seeing tensions rising. Tensions have been rising for a while now between the two countries caused by an increase in the Japanese military, a rewriting of the Japanese constitution, arguments of islands in the East China Sea, and a controversial trip mad by Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Things seem to be hotter than usual as there are huge anti Japanese sentiments in China and vice versa. Although Abe may seem like a trouble maker with some of his comments he has said, “Japan has sworn an oath to never again wage a war”. As calming and reassuring as his statement is, there are military buildups happening on both sides every day, and it only takes one incident to ignite the fire.

Further reading

6 Responses to Rising Tension Between China and Japan

  1. Fixed image attribution by linking to NYTimes, fixed captioning of image, and added “drop caps” to first letters of paragraphs.

    It seems necessary to mention here the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, long claimed by both nations, and China’s declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea (and the aforementioned islands) in November of last year, a move which prompted international criticism–despite China’s apparent wariness about actually enforcing its pompous threats of forcing down aircraft which fail to radio-identify. China’s ADIZ actually overlaps the ADIZs of both Korea and Japan–and unlike the ADIZs of these countries and the US, China has proclaimed that even aircraft which do not intend to enter its airspace must radio-identify themselves and declare their flightpaths.
    I also find Mr. Abe’s Britain-Germany rhetoric intriguing. Robert Kaplan, in The Revenge of Geography stated that, in many ways, Japan is/has been historically the Great Britain of East Asia–a formerly imperialistic island powerhouse with maritime forces not to be reckoned with (especially as Japan builds up its military). Of course Mr. Abe went on to clarify that “Japan has sworn an oath never again to wage a war,”–so perhaps this is less a threat of attack than a historical warning: do not engage us, for if you do, you will lose like Germany lost to England.

  2. “Long-time rivals” really doesn’t apply until the late 19th century, when Japan had gone through the Meiji (Restoration) Revolution and was working to build strength to counter western imperialism. It was worried about control of Korea, a “dagger” pointed at the heart of Japan. That led in 1895 to a brief war that lessened China’s claim over Korea (and a later war in 1905 with Czarist Russia toward the same end). At base, China wasn’t a sea power, and Japan had neither ability nor intent to project its power across the sea (indeed, it reined in pirates in the 17th century to try to make sure it didn’t get embroiled in the building unrest that led to the collapse of the Ming). So the islands have not been long claimed by China, though they were known to those in the region and thus were noted by gazetteers. Ditto to the island around Okinawa, which was long semi-independent.
    In the 19th century the Senkakus were settled by Japanese fisherman, who later moved out as the islands weren’t a great place to live. China never established any claim by settlement or even known landfall; they sort of fell into the Japanese sphere in the latter half of the 19th century. The recent nature of Japanese claims, and the circuitous path, both leave room for China to make noise and get people to listen.
    The more important context is that in the 1970s China began asserting claims on islands all along the (western) Pacific Rim, most notably the Spratly’s, Paracels and other atolls near the Philippines, Malaysia and Thailand. I recall no discussion of the Senkaku islands until some Taiwanese nationalists began making noise – but you can’t even hear a whisper that if not Japanese, the islands would be part of Taiwan and not the mainland.
    Finally, there’s been neither an “increase” in the Japanese military nor a revising of the constitution. [As a long-standing US ally Japan does however have a sizeable force equipped with modern hardware, and is better armed than China.] Abe seems in part to be a nationalist, but in part making the visit just to show that China can’t dictate what he does or doesn’t do. At the same time, China has gone through a leadership change and its military wants to justify higher budgets; both are helped by nationalist stances. I’ve spoken to college students in China, their history books are very … imaginatively written. Their knowledge of 20th century history is very bad, and you can’t circumvent that by going to a bookstore. Now the curriculum in Japan often shied away from the 20th century, and the slow pace of high school history classes was reinforced by college entrance exams focusing on earlier eras. But at least in Japan, bookstore shelves include first-hand confessions of soldiers who were in Nanjing, and it’s easy to read about the very unflattering things that were done by Japanese in the war. But my sense is that young Japanese don’t see why they should be bowing and scraping because of things in which their great-grandparents may have been complicit. I have not observed any systematic anti-Chinese attitudes in Japan, if anything it’s the opposite, nor do any but fringe politicians try to play on the cults and kooks who revel in racism. Unfortunately that’s not true inside China, and so we must watch for how it affects economic ties, and whether hot-headed navy and “fishing boat” captains in China think they can enhance their careers by aggressive encounters with the Japanese Coast Guard. Things could get out of hand very quickly…..

    • Yes, the terms “long-time” and “long claimed” are relative, and I believe Mitchell and I were speaking only of the past century. Perhaps the Diaoyu/Senkakus are trivial, but they are certainly at the center of current tensions. And as you note, history in both China and Japan is highly revisionist and nationalist–although some would argue the same about the curriculum in the US.
      And if Japan has not yet grown its military, it certainly has laid out concrete plans to do so in the coming years–according to Kyodo News, “around 63.8 billion yen will be earmarked for the purchase of four F-35 stealth fighter jets, and 38.3 billion yen to buy equipment and train personnel to fly the fighter jets. The total number of F-35s will eventually rise to 42 under the medium-term defense buildup plan.” Its military budget has already, through clever accounting, exceeded the 1% of GDP limit imposed by the current constitution.
      Moreover, though he has not yet succeeded, Mr. Abe has made rewriting the constitution a central policy goal, and the draft released in 2012 shows what kinds of changes he would like to make. Part of the reason it was not adopted is because any amendment requires approval by 2/3rds of both houses of the National Diet in addition to approval by the majority in a popular referendum
      In any case, let us hope that the transoceanic aggression is limited to rhetoric, as that would be best for all.

      • Four stealth fighters is rebuilding the military?? – or just replacing decades-old planes?? This doesn’t sound like much of a build-up!!

  3. As South Korean, I am really interested in China-Japan relationship. As history tells us, if something goes wrong between them, Korea was always the victim. As professor mentioned above, they are not really the long time rivals (Korea and Japan are.) However, Chinese really hate Japaneses due to the current issue with the island and world war 2.
    Although there might be some tension between two countries, I do not think there will be a war or some kind of military actions. Since they are tied economically that fighting will hurt both of their economies.

    • “Really hate the Japanese” may be true of the young, who face heavy-handed propaganda. But into the 1980s no such stance was visible. Earlier Mao accepted a large aid package (the word “reparations” wasn’t used) and a formal apology from Prime Minister Tanaka when Japan normalized relations with the People’s Republic (recognizing it not Taiwan as “China”). So this hate is a recent and intentional policy, surely for domestic political reasons.