A Tenuous New Normal?


Koh Swee Lean Collin understands the recent developments in the Sino-Japanese security dynamics

The recent Sino-Japanese icebreaker talks heralded the thaw of an acrimonious bilateral relationship ever since Tokyo nationalised the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands – which Beijing also claim sovereignty to – in 2012. The talks followed the Four-PointAgreement reached by both sides in November 2014, which called for improvement of ties and the resumption of dialogue, while acknowledging differing national positions regarding the dispute.

Even before the Four-Point Agreement and icebreaker politico-security talks came about, some activities had already taken place. The visits by senior-ranking Japanese politicians and their exchanges between key Chinese state officials are particularly noteworthy. Their role in this “back channel” or semi-official diplomacy cannot be discounted as an insignificant driver behind the recent thaw of bilateral ties. At the very least, they helped prevent tensions from escalating.

Besides these exchanges, there were attempts to ensure that economic relations remain stable, especially after the anti-Japanese demonstrations in China amid calls to boycott Japanese products following the nationalisation of islands by Tokyo, which resulted in the shuttering of businesses by some Japanese firms in the country. Yet, on the whole, bilateral economic ties remain buoyant. Japan continues to enjoy the Chinese tourist boom. In May 2014, Chinese Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng and Japanese Trade Minister Toshimitsu Motegi met for about 20 minutes on the sidelines of a ministerial session of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Qingdao, China. Both ministers pledged to continue pragmatic cooperation in areas such as energy, and most significantly, Beijing also expressed the desire for improved ties that could “create favourable conditions for the resumption of Sino-Japanese economic and trade relations.”

Bilateral Relations – More Hurdles to Clear

From the broader perspective of economic interdependence, it is clear that neither Beijing nor Tokyo seriously wishes to imperil overall relations over an intractable dispute that sees no sight of being satisfactorily resolved in the foreseeable future. But notwithstanding the recent rapprochement, including the meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the side-lines of the just-concluded Asian African Conference 2015 held in Jakarta, bilateral relations still have more hurdles to clear. The current state of Sino-Japanese relations can be said to have stabilised. Yet, the situation is not too rosy considering persistent mutual suspicions over each other’s intentions.

In particular, underpinned by not just the on-going dispute, but also intractable historical issues, Abe’s push for a more global security role for Japan, which is accompanied by the spate of Tokyo’s military build-up and its south-western forays into Southeast Asia and the Indian Ocean region, have been eyed warily by Beijing. On the other hand, China’s rapid military build-up and intensified naval activities in the East China Sea, including waters close to Japanese home islands especially in the remote southwest, have become a matter of security concern to Tokyo.

Indeed, since 2012, the East China Sea has witnessed tumultuous upheavals. Chinese displeasure towards Japan’s moves to nationalise the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was aptly expressed in a regular series of patrols conducted by its civilian maritime law enforcement agencies. From merely staying just outside the territorial waters surrounding the isles, these coastguard forays have escalated into regular intrusions into the sacrosanct 12-nautical mile limit despite warnings by Japanese patrols.

The situation worsened in the subsequent years, as it becomes evident that not just low-capability assets such as coastguard vessels, but also high-capability ones such as heavily-armed warships and aerial platforms entered the fray. Warships of the Chinese navy have become a more prominent presence in the East China Sea close to the isles and coming into close encounters with their Japanese counterparts, including the aiming of fire control radar by a Chinese frigate at a Japanese destroyer in late January 2013. Chinese patrol planes and even drones flew close to the disputed isles, prompting Japan to scramble its interceptors. Following Beijing’s promulgation of an air defence identification zone over the East China Sea in late 2013, there have been numerous mid-air close encounters between the two countries’ military aviation forces, especially those which took place in May and June 2014.

It is, therefore, clear that at the current rate of such maritime and aerial incidents, future episodes may head down the irreversible alley of the outright use of force, which is more likely accidental or inadvertent than premeditated. The potential political and economic fallout of such an event will be significant for China and Japan. With this dire scenario in mind, both capitals see good reason to exercise self-restraint as much as possible. Unpleasant rhetoric aside, the most important thing is to ensure those standoffs do not spin out of control. Hence, there is a renewed drive to revive discussion on the maritime crisis management mechanism that has been put on hold since 2012.

Advantages of a Crisis Management Mechanism

Barring the eventual materialisation of an agreement, both sides must at least be seen to exhibit a desire to push for the mechanism. A crisis management mechanism such as this is a form of operational arms control measure that, unlike a structural arms control instrument, does not seek to limit the type and quantity of armaments acquired by the signatories. In the present geopolitical climate, it is implausible to even think of a structural arms control pact, not when Beijing is determined to modernise its military and not when Tokyo is keen to maintain the military-technological advantages it has, while China is catching up and when faced with a perceived threat posed by North Korea’s nuclear and ballistic missile arsenal. Therefore, operational measures such as the crisis management mechanism represent the best hope. If it is promulgated, it will pave the way for even more ambitious measures to further reduce the risk of incidents in the East China Sea.

However, it ought to be pointed out that signing a pact on the mechanism will only constitute the first baby step forward, for it is the implementation that truly matters. Otherwise, the mechanism merely exists as a formalised piece of political declaration. It should be pointed out that historically, arms control agreements failed because signatories reneged on their commitments, such as through deception or non-compliance to the clauses. They would even elect to withdraw from the pacts if national interests override all other considerations. On a less sanguine note, it also needs highlighting that the existence of this mechanism only means that the current state of affairs will continue, albeit with risks minimised.

Now that Beijing has regularised its coastguard patrols off the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, there is no incentive to completely withdraw from such operations. If Tokyo believes that having a crisis management mechanism means that the pre-2012 status quo is restored and the Japan Coast guard can finally take a break, it is badly mistaken. The Chinese will more likely seek to maintain the patrols, even if reduced in frequency, because to completely withdraw them is politically unpalatable at home. Should there be any new spat popping up, gunboat diplomacy will always come in handy. Furthermore, Beijing is well-positioned to keep up with the game given the considerable rate at which its shipyards have been churning out new vessels to beef up its coastguard fleet.

So what this mechanism does is to merely ensure that those maritime and aerial encounters do not spin out of control, and at best ensuring that both sides desist from escalating by deploying higher-capability assets. In other words, icebreaker politico-security talks or crisis management mechanism are only meant for coping with what can be deemed a new normal for Sino-Japanese security relations. This will most likely not encompass the spectre of a major war, but one that is symbolised by a continually uneasy relationship underpinned by mutual arms build-up and various forms of political manoeuvring for regional influence.

Tokyo’s Attempts to Offset Beijing’s Rise

Under the current leadership, Japan will continue to be viewed by China warily as the former intensifies its “charm offensive”, especially in what Beijing has always regarded as its southern periphery of influence, judging from Tokyo’s expressed willingness to support defence and security capacity-building efforts of Southeast Asian countries. It does not appear to be mere coincidence that Japan has struck recent such deals with the Philippines and Vietnam, with whom China has its own set of teething problems in the South China Sea disputes.

Despite the fruits reaped so far by Tokyo from its south-western forays, the picture is not too rosy either. The Chinese upped the ante with new outreach that garnered considerable regional and global support, notably the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank as well as the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative. In the meantime, China’s military and coastguard build-ups continue to forge ahead by leaps and bounds. Flush with cash, at least with the foreseeable economic growth, Beijing looks set to sustain such multi-pronged efforts to pursue its rightful place under the sun, developments that Tokyo can hardly afford to ignore.

In order to offset China’s growing clout, at least under the present leadership, Japan will endeavour to raise its own stature as well. Besides “Abenomics” to reinvigorate its economy, Tokyo has embarked on a campaign to gain permanent membership in the United Nations Security Council and also enhanced the longstanding Overseas Development Assistance programme. On the defence and security front, much has taken place. Just recently, Japan relaxed its arms export policy other than pushing forward an ambitious defence build-up programme. Perhaps most controversial of all has been the plan for collective self-defence, which will usher in a greater regional and international role for the Japan Self-Defense Forces (JSDF). Besides demonstrating its reliability as a military ally to the US, Japan’s expanded role as a global security provider will certainly be welcome. The latter aspect has been well exemplified through JSDF’s huge showing in the aftermath of Super Typhoon Haiyan, which struck the Philippines in November 2013.

But concerns of a more aggressive, remilitarised Japan under the present defence build-up would be exaggerated. Tokyo took pains to assure, chiefly South Korea, of its self-restraint and adherence to a defensive policy. Ultimately, the greatest check and balance would come not so much from external but internal sources. Notwithstanding Abe’s rhetoric, his plan has not evaded resistance or questioning by domestic constituents. Public polls show that the majority of the Japanese oppose revisions to the post-1945 pacifist Constitution. The ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s junior partner Komeito is not keen for a drastic reinterpretation of the Constitution and therefore, serves as a credible check and balance. This factor has been the root of protracted negotiations between the two ruling coalition partners over the modalities of expanded JSDF roles. Just recently, the two parties reportedly agreed to empower the government to obtain prior consent of the Diet, with no exception, for the dispatch of JSDF troops overseas under the planned international peace assistance legislation.

Implications of the Japan-US Defence Cooperation

In this connection, the recently revised Japan-US defence cooperation guidelines carved out new roles for JSDF, but that also implies that Japan’s future military posture remains tightly-circumscribed within the alliance framework. Yet, this presents a mixed situation for Beijing: by staying within the American military orbit, Japan can be restrained from “going alone” in remilitarising itself (including the prospect of nuclear-arming), but it also means that China will have to contend with a more “extroverted” JSDF. Under the revised guidelines, Japan’s enhanced roles may even directly impinge upon Beijing’s interests beyond the East China Sea. Notably in this regard, Tokyo and Washington were lately reported to have discussed the prospects of joint patrols and surveillance in the South China Sea. The guidelines also partially alleviated the burden on the US, which helps sustain its current rebalancing efforts in Asia.

As such, the present rapprochement will sustain. But overall relations will be a tenuous and uneasy one, characterised by resurgent tensions from time to time. Therefore, efforts to promulgate a crisis management mechanism need to be expedited. With the accumulation of increasingly capable military means in the backdrop of persistent historical animosities and intractable disputes, not to forget uncertainties revolving around prospects for the crisis management mechanism, the onus still falls on both China and Japan to exercise tacit self-restraint in order to minimise surprises, and, if such should ever arise, ensure that they do not escalate into alarm.

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Diplomatist Magazine was launched in October of 1996 as the signature magazine of L.B. Associates (Pvt) Ltd, a contract publishing house based in Noida, a satellite town of New Delhi, India, the National Capital.