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Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions
Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions
Table of Contents
  1. Executive Summary
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 
Report 258 / Asia

Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions

The deterioration in relations between China and Japan has spiraled beyond an island sovereignty dispute and risks an armed conflict neither wants. A November regional summit is a fence-mending opportunity – if the two countries’ leaders rise above nationalism and manage multiple flashpoints.

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Executive Summary

Enmity between China and Japan is hardening into a confrontation that appears increasingly difficult to untangle by diplomacy. Positions on the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku island group are wide apart, and politically viable options to bridge the gap remain elusive. New frictions have arisen. China’s announcement in November 2013 of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), overlapping that of Japan’s and covering the disputed islands, deepened Tokyo’s anxiety that Beijing desires both territory and to alter the regional order. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s provocative visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 triggered a bitter argument as to whether Japan has fully atoned for its Second World War aggression, a still vivid sore in the region. Amid heightened suspicion and militarisation of the East China Sea and its air space, the risks of miscalculation grow. Leadership in both countries needs to set a tone that prioritises diplomacy to calm the troubled waters: November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit might provide such an opportunity.

A perception is gaining ground in Tokyo that the still new administration of President Xi Jinping is particularly assertive and that China seeks to revive its hegemonic “Middle Kingdom” status in the region. China perceives the Abe government as the “troublemaker” that stokes tensions in order to rearm Japan. Insensitive actions and strident rhetoric increasingly appear to be replacing diplomacy. Both sides progressively consider the other as a primary national security threat and are boosting their military capabilities and adjusting their defence postures accordingly.

Although not likely to attempt to wrest control of the islands fully from Japan any time soon, Beijing acts upon the belief that the balance of power is shifting in its favour and that a strength-driven approach can pressure Japan into accepting incremental changes over time. Tokyo, appearing to agree that China has long-term power advantages, seeks to tighten its U.S. alliance and unite regional countries around rules-based opposition to unilateral changes.

Presumably, neither desires an armed conflict, but they face heightened risk of an unplanned clash. The danger spans three theatres – the waters near the disputed islands; the high seas of the Western Pacific; and the airspace over the East China Sea – and involves law enforcement vessels, fishing boats, naval fleets and military aircraft. While it appears that patrol patterns around the islands have stabilised and risky behaviour there has eased since late 2013, military encounters in the other two theatres have become more frequent and dangerous.

The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has stepped up exercises in offshore waters in its quest for blue water capability, coming as a consequence into increasing contact with the Japan Self-Defence Forces (SDF). The sides have starkly different interpretations of their operational rights and limitations. Japan insists on rights to surveillance in international waters. China has demonstrated a willingness to take risks to keep foreign vessels and aircraft away from its fleets. Repeated close calls have resulted. Since China announced an ADIZ that overlaps with Japan’s, there has been a spike in the number of encounters by military aircraft, with both sides accusing the other of provocative behaviour.

Tokyo has been more active in pursuing crisis management and seeking out mitigation mechanisms but is concerned not to do so in a way that compromises its sovereignty claims or legitimises China’s ADIZ. Beijing says that the current political environment is not conducive to engagement on this front. Even though awareness of the risk of unplanned clashes has been growing in both capitals, and both have accepted a multilateral Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), neither unofficial discussion nor the non-binding code has yet to reduce close calls.

The November 2014 APEC summit in Beijing may offer an opportunity for President Xi and Prime Minister Abe to meet and set the tone for negotiations on establishing and implementing means to manage the tension. Both sides would need to commit to handle the fragile relationship with extreme care and show restraint around the flashpoints, including the islands dispute and historical issues. Bilateral relations urgently require a sufficiently long period of calm to pursue discreet diplomatic initiatives.

Chinese marine surveillance ship Haijian No. 51 (C) sails near Japan Coast Guard vessels (R and L) and a Japanese fishing boat (front 2nd L), East China Sea, 1 July 2013. REUTERS/Kyodo
Report 280 / Asia

East China Sea: Preventing Clashes from Becoming 

Dangerous aerial and naval encounters are rising as China and Japan spar over disputed islands in the East China Sea. A promising reconciliation process has floundered. To prevent an accident tipping the dispute into open hostility, both sides urgently need a credible crisis management protocol to insulate any negotiations from their broader rivalry.

Executive Summary

As China-Japan relations oscillate between hostility and détente, a credible crisis management protocol is urgently needed to manage the increasing, unplanned contacts between their military aircraft and ships. Despite intermittent negotiations, the two have been unable to agree on a maritime and air communication mechanism to help fill this gap. After suspension due to the 2012 Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, China agreed to resume talks on the mechanism, comprising a hotline, meetings between defence authorities and communication protocols between forward military units in 2014. Dangerously close military aerial encounters appear to have played a fundamental role in the decision, but negotiations soon stalled over the area the mechanism would cover, an issue with implications for the dispute over the islands’ sovereignty. Resentment arising from other aspects of the relationship hardened China against compromise. With a prickly bilateral détente now in place, however, the two governments should prioritise crisis management and insulate the negotiations from their broader rivalry.

The need for crisis management is growing. The air forces are coming into contact more frequently, as each attempts to administer the overlapping Air Defence Identification Zones (ADIZ). Several close calls have already occurred. The navies are also increasingly in contact, as China sends ships further from its shores with greater regularity. Encounters around the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, East China Sea and Western Pacific will continue. Different national operating guidelines, applied in an atmosphere of mutual mistrust, exacerbate the risks of miscalculation. Nationalism, increasingly institutionalised distrust on both sides and limited opportunities to build trust through military exchanges make it harder to prevent rapid escalation of hostilities should a deadly incident transpire.

Meanwhile, both sides are enhancing their military capabilities in the East China Sea. China is expanding its naval and air operations further into open waters in a bid to extend its maritime footprint to the Western Pacific, and Japan is shoring up the defences of its south-western island chain in response. Bolstered by the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, the Abe administration pushed through more proactive security legislation – the most significant shift in Japan’s defence posture since the end of the Second World War.

Against this backdrop, China and Japan need to seize the opportunity proffered by their current fragile reconciliation to establish crisis management ties. China should delink the subject from the political relationship and sovereignty questions: an unplanned clash with Japan would neither benefit its goal of achieving peripheral stability nor safeguard its rights. Japan should continue to engage and avoid inflammatory remarks that increase political risks for moderates in China. Staged implementation of the proposed mechanism, beginning with the hotline, could be a near-term confidence-building measure. Fundamental mistrust makes true reconciliation unlikely in the near future, but there is common interest in preventing or limiting an accidental crisis that would harm the political, security and economic interests of both. China and Japan should thus launch the maritime and air communication mechanism as soon as possible.


To enable agreement on the Maritime and Air Communication Mechanism 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Instruct front-line personnel, in the mechanism’s absence, to adhere to protocols in the Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES), to which both are party. 
  2. Discuss concerns about risk of collision by fishing boats and/or coast guard vessels in waters around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the High-Level Consultations on Maritime Affairs, a multi-agency forum that includes the coast guard. 
  3. Restart vice-ministerial-level defence exchanges and resume exchanges between defence universities and research organisations.
  4. China should delink Diaoyu/Senkaku sovereignty from the mechanism negotiations. 
  5. Japan should refrain from comments or actions which suggest revisionist views of history and a departure from the Murayama Statement, its 1995 official apology for wartime aggression, and immediately distance itself from provocative statements made by officials and politicians. 
  6. Japan should maintain an open dialogue with Beijing over the enhancement of its south-western defences and refrain from negatively publicising China’s lawful military activities, such as legitimate overflights and naval transits. 

To ensure effective implementation 

To the governments of China and Japan:

  1. Keep the hotline open at all times and ensure responsible persons/units have authority to reach decision-makers and front-line personnel quickly in an emergency and to make decisions to contain and de-escalate the crisis; and utilise the hotline in case of an incident before resorting to public criticism.
  2. Give front-line operators adequate training and hold those who violate the rules accountable.
  3. Increase direct contact between front-line troops and personnel by:
    1. organising a second round of mutual naval visits; and
    2. stepping-up participation in multilateral training forums based on CUES, such as the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and others.
  4. Agree to address violations first bilaterally, including in defence authority meetings, so as to maximise space for resolution, rather than arguing them in the media.
  5. Consider incorporating guidelines for behaviour other than communications within the mechanism later, possibly based on those included within the 2014 U.S.-China defence memorandums or CUES.

To third-party governments and non-governmental institutions, such as research organisations, private groups and think-tanks with ties to both parties:

  1. Host forums that bring the parties together for discussions on crisis management and mitigation, including by;
    1. organising workshops to review CUES and other international naval and air agreements containing guidelines on rules of behaviour; 
    2. facilitating the sharing of best practices to avoid incidents at sea, whether in forums, symposiums or joint research projects; and
    3. encouraging participation by both coast guards and militaries, especially commanders in charge of front-line operations.
  2. Organise multilateral naval exercises on CUES implementation involving both China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and Japan’s Self-Defence Forces (SDF).

Beijing/Tokyo/Brussels, 30 June 2016