Russia and the Asia-Pacific Region

Tetsuya Toyoda: Comfortable Confrontation between China and Japan

June 7, 2013

The collision of a Chinese ‘fishing’ boat into vessels of the Japanese Coast Guard in September 2010 near the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands triggered the rise of tension between China and Japan. After the arrest of the captain and crew of the boat, there was an uproar of violent protests all over China, demanding the return of their heroes as well as the ‘stolen’ islands. There was another round of violent protests in September 2012 after the Japanese government’s purchase of three major islands of the Senkaku Islands. Japanese restaurants, stores and factories were ransacked and/or put on fire. Hundreds of Chinese citizens saw their Japanese cars destroyed by ‘patriotic’ riots. Since then, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy has been gradually increasing its incursions into the area around the Senkaku Islands barely controlled by the Japanese government. In December 2012, a Chinese aircraft made an incursion into Japanese-controlled airspace for the first time in the record.


Anti-China sentiments surged among the Japanese as well, weary of Chinese aggressiveness and dissatisfied with the weakness of their own government releasing the arrested intruders under the strong pressures from Beijing (even though, according to Tokyo, it was the prosecutor’s office in Okinawa which independently decided the release) and unable to protect Japanese citizens in China. In fact, the Japanese purchase of the three islands last year was not intended to express the government’s strong will to push back Chinese expansionism but was to prevent the famous nationalist governor of Tokyo, Shintaro Ishihara, from purchasing the islands with fundraised money. Governor Ishihara called for the purchase of the three islands, which were under private ownership, and many citizens responded eagerly with donations summing up to 1.5 billion yen (approx. 15 million US dollars). At that time the DPJ (Democratic Party of Japan) was in office, which was far more conciliatory with China than the LDP (Liberal Democratic Party) in opposition. The DPJ was surprised and disappointed by the furor and vandalism all over China after the announcement of the purchase. It was a fatal political mistake committed by the DPJ. 


Politics needs an enemy 

After the landslide victory at the lower house election in December 2012, the LDP took office under the leadership of Shinzo Abe, labeled ‘ultra-nationalist’ by Chinese media. Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist Party chose Xi Jinping as new leader, nominating him General Secretary and Central Military Commission Chairman in November 2012 and Head of State in March 2013. In his first major speech, Xi Jinping clarified that he would make no concession on territorial issues. Both Abe and Xi stand firm on their respective national(istic) positions.[1] At first sight it looks unreasonable for both governments to escalate the conflict. The fall in economic exchanges hurts both nations. Trade between the two countries dropped in 2012 by 3.9% from the previous year. Japanese investments are leaving China. But the leaders of the two countries seem to ignore their national interests. I believe that is because of the eternal principle of politics: Politics needs an enemy.


For the Chinese government, Japan is the best country to be labeled as enemy with its image of imperialistic aggression in the early Twentieth Century. The incumbent president Xi Jinping, close to the PLA, was one of beneficiaries of the rise of tension, because it certainly contributed to the ousting of Hu Jintao from the chairmanship of the Communist Party’s Central Military Commission in 2012. When Hu Jintao was elected General Secretary of the Communist Party in 2002, his predecessor Jiang Zemin remained the chairman of the Military Commission for two more years and meanwhile did not give a free hand to Hu Jintao on foreign and military policy. But that was not the case with the succession of power in 2012. Xi Jinping’s success probably owes to Hu Jintao’s image as a pro-Japan politician, unable to ‘baowei diaoyu (defend the Diaoyu Islands).’ He could be considered as the least suitable person for the chairmanship of the Military Commission.


On the Japanese side, the DPJ tried to ease the tension with China and was considered unpatriotic by many. When the DPJ came to power in 2010, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama declared a policy of fraternity and called for the creation of an East Asian Community. But his initiative was ill-received both in and out of Japan, especially after the first rise of tension between China and Japan over the Senkaku Islands. The DPJ’s defeat at the general election in December 2012 was phenomenal: only 57 seats for DPJ candidates (230 before the election) while the LDP obtained 294 seats (118 before the election). Shinzo Abe, president of the LDP, was elected prime minister on 26 December 2012.Until 2010, public opinion in Japan was much divided whether to maintain the US bases in Okinawa two decades after the end of Cold War. But now the Japanese are very aware how aggressive their big neighbor can be. The LDP, traditionally more pro-US than pro-China, is comfortable with this change in public opinion.

Business is business

In spite of political and military confrontations, China will remain Japan’s largest export and import partner and Japan China’s largest import partner (China’s largest export partner is the US). China, South Korea and Japan just had on March 26-28 the first round of talks on a possible trilateral free trade agreement. The total gross domestic product of the three countries accounts for one-fifth of world economy. As those three economies are closely tied by industrial supply chains, benefits of an FTA would be substantial.


The launch of FTA negotiations goes back to 20 November last year, before the coming to power of the LDP in Japan and right after the coming to power of Xi Jinping in China. It is significant that they did not change the negotiation schedule in spite of the mounting tensions. Xi’s predecessor Hu Jintao promoted economic cooperation in spite of political tension and he qualified the situation as «zhengleng jingre (cold politics and warm economy).» If Xi Jinping will follow the same path, the momentary decline in China-Japan trade relationship in 2012 will be remembered as an exceptional phenomenon where a political event affected the economy. It may be said that for political leaders purely political (or just verbal) tensions are welcome, as long as such tensions should not harm economic cooperation.

Risk of Rising Militarism?

But, even if diplomatic confrontation can go hand in hand with economic cooperation and if militarism is politically useful as long as it does not affect economy, the development of Chinese military expense by more than 10% every year is alarming. There is a serious doubt whether Chinese politicians are effectively controlling the military budget.


Some historians see similarities between China today and Japan in the 1930s. In the wake of the 1929 global financial crisis Japanese economy was hit hard by deflation of nearly 10%, aggravating already high unemployment rate and social unrest. Chinese society today suffers from social inequalities and economic instability. An easy solution is militarism. People are eager to see their country strong, defending itself against foreign countries. In Japan in 1930s, the military sought a solution in an aggressive foreign policy, starting the Manchurian invasion in September 1931 (by the Mukden Incident plotted by the Japanese Kwantung Army) without political authorization. Prime Minister Tsuyoshi Inukai, considered pacifist, was assassinated by young naval officers in May 1932. Japanese politics was overwhelmed by the rising militarism and remained under its control until the devastating defeat of August 1945.


Can another Senkaku incident be a ‘Mukden incident’ by China? Probably not. Fortunately, the Chinese government today seems to have more control over the PLA than the Japanese government did over the Kwantung Army in 1930s. The damage of the 2008 global financial crisis on China is much less severe than the damage of the 1929 global financial crisis on Japan. The international community today is more vigilant on military expansionism than it was in the 1930s. China today is more civilized than Japan in the 1930s. The recent reinforcement of the State Oceanic Administration Agency in March 2013 can be interpreted as part of efforts to put the activities of the PLA Navy under the Communist Party’s control.


All that said, we should keep eyes on the tremendous buildup of military forces in China. Politicians both in China and Japan can enjoy comfortable confrontation as long as the military do not use it as a pretext to take over politics.


Tetsuya Toyoda, Associate Professor, Akita International University, Visiting Professor, Far Eastern Federal University


1 New York Times (Asia-Pacific edition), «China Leader Affirms Policy on Islands», by Chris Buckley, 29 January , 2013, available online at

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