The decision of Shinzo Abe to visit Beijing on his first foreign trip as Japan’s new Prime Minister has led many observers to hope that Abe can achieve a breakthrough in Sino-Japanese relations. The annual visits since 2001 of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni war shrine have generated widespread protests in China and served as a pretext for the Chinese government to freeze relations. The shrine honors the 2.5 million Japanese troops who died in Japan’s modern wars, including 14 Class A convicted war criminals from World War II. Critics in Japan and elsewhere see the memorial as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Citing the continuing visits, China’s senior leaders had refused to meet with Koizumi outside of multilateral gatherings.
Current hopes for a rapid or sustained improvement in Sino-Japanese relations are probably misplaced. The mutual recriminations over Koizumi’s shrine visits are a symptom rather than a cause of bilateral frictions. Several developments during the past decade have disrupted the previous stable pattern of Sino-Japanese relations. In particular, the demise of the Soviet threat and improvements in Russian-Chinese relations led China to reassess its earlier support for the Japanese-American defense alliance. Previously, Beijing tolerated the alliance because it helped contain Soviet power in the Pacific while simultaneously channeling Japanese military activities within acceptable boundaries. Since the mid-1990s, however, Chinese officials have increasingly feared that the two countries view China as the new target for their joint defense endeavors.
At the same time that the Cold War’s end led Beijing to change its views of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, it also allowed the Japanese government to assume a more prominent role in international security affairs. During the past decade, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) have deployed on a variety of foreign peace operations, including sending unarmed SDF personnel to Iraq. Growing Japanese nationalism has also prompted Japanese leaders to resist foreign pressures over the shrine issue, contributed to a growth of “apology fatigue” among the growing number of Japanese born after World War II, and increased support for enhancing Japan’s capacity to respond like other “normal” medium-range powers to external security threats.
Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been pushing to modify the country’s traditional interpretation of Japan’s post-war constitutionespecially Article 9’s perceived restrictions on collective defense activitiesto allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to play a greater role in international security. Amending the constitution would require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Diet, as well as an affirmative majority in a subsequent national referendum. Although this process could take a decade, Japan’s external security role will likely continue to expand on a less formal basis given the lack of significant domestic opposition. Alarm over North Korea’s reckless behavior motivated many of the initial innovations in Japan’s regional security policies, but more recent differences with China have substantially lessened traditional popular concerns about expanding the SDF’s roles and capabilities. For instance, a December 2005 public opinion poll conducted by the Nikkei Shimbun found that 69% of the respondents believed people “cannot trust” China compared with only 14% who said they could.
This change in Japanese public sentiment mainly stems from anxieties regarding China’s growing economic and military power. Although the Japanese continue to see China as replete with tremendous commercial opportunities, recent Chinese actions have alarmed Japan’s leaders and public. During the March 1996 crisis over Taiwan, China launched missiles in the island’s vicinity, threatening regional maritime commerce. Some of these missiles landed within 100 kilometers of Okinawa. A few months later, the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands arose anew. Since the late 1990s, Chinese ships have conducted unauthorized “research” within waters claimed by Japan, exacerbating their bilateral dispute over exploratory drilling rights in the undersea natural gas fields of the East China Sea. In November 2004, the Japanese detected a Chinese nuclear submarine in their territorial waters. The Japan Defense Agency’s Defense of Japan 2006 identified China’s military modernization as potentially threatening and, like the U.S. and other governments, called on Beijing to make its defense programs more transparent. In December 2005, both Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Seiji Maehara, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, described China as a military threat to Japan.
Chinese policy makers probably do not consider Japan’s SDF as an immediate threat. Nevertheless, they fear that U.S. pressure and Japan’s extensive ties with Taiwan could result in joint Japanese-American intervention on Taipei’s behalf in the event of a future Taiwan Straits crisis. To Beijing’s annoyance, the Japanese and American foreign and defense ministers participating in the February 2005 Security Consultative Committee (SCC) session publicly identified for the first time the “peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait” as a “common strategic objective” in the Asia Pacific region. When China’s 2002 Defense White Paper expressed unease over joint U.S.-Japanese research on ballistic missile defense, the unstated concern was that the two countries could share BMD technologies with Taiwan. Such trilateral collaboration would negate Beijing’s strategy of deterring the island’s independence aspirations by threatening missile strikes in response to increased assertions of Taiwanese autonomy. Chinese sensitivities regarding Japan’s ties with Taiwan became evident in February 2006, when a statement by the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso about how Taiwan’s educational system benefited from Japan’s colonial rule elicited sharp Chinese protests. Over the long term, Chinese strategists worry that, with U.S. pressure and assistance, the Japanese could exploit their technological and industrial potential to become a major military power, perhaps even by activating the country’s latent nuclear weapons capacity.
The bilateral relationship between Japan and China is primed for problems. If the Yasukuni visits stopped tomorrow, other sources of tension between Japan and China, currently overshadowed by the shrine issue, would assume greater prominence. China does not want Japan to have a seat on the UN Security Council, contests the country’s maritime economic claims, and disapproves of Japan’s growing security cooperation with the United States, particularly their joint development of ballistic missile defenses and their possible coordinated response to another crisis over Taiwan. East Asia has never experienced a situation in which both Japan and China were powerful and assertive states. Prior to Japan’s Meiji Restoration in 1868, China was the dominant regional power. For the next hundred years, Japan enjoyed relative superiority, interrupted only during a short period after World War II when both countries were recovering from their wartime losses. As a result of Japan’s decade-long economic stagnation and China’s transition to a remarkably successful form of state capitalism, East Asia now must make room for two roughly equivalent economic powers, both with expanding security concerns and military capabilities.