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.
Politically viable options to bridge the wide gap on the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands dispute remain elusive. New frictions have arisen: China’s declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) above the East China Sea deepened Tokyo’s anxiety that it desires both territory and a new regional order; Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and statements that suggest a retreat from past apologies for the Second World War atrocities reopened old wounds. Asia’s two most powerful countries increasingly prioritise defence build-up over diplomacy. Their law-enforcement vessels, navies and military planes engage in frequent and risky encounters at sea and in the air. Old Scores and New Grudges: Evolving Sino-Japanese Tensions, Crisis Group's second report on the deteriorating relationship, analyses events, actors and dynamics that complicate ties and impede diplomacy.
The report’s major findings and recommendations are:
- China should instruct the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) navy and air force to refrain from risk-seeking and avoid collisions during patrol, exercise and surveillance. Japan, in turn, should instruct its Maritime and Air Self-Defence Forces (SDF) to take extra caution to avoid collisions or conflict with the PLA.
- Japan should continue to urge resumption of the multi-agency, high-level bilateral maritime affairs consultation process and operationalisation of a defence agency communications mechanism. China should drop political conditions for such actions. Both countries should prioritise implementing the non-binding Code for Unplanned Encounters at Sea (CUES) they have agreed on.
- China and Japan should establish hotlines between their coast guards, and between the National Security Council (Japan) and the National Security Commission (China), and ensure that those in charge have authority to speedily reach decision-makers and frontline personnel in an emergency.
“China should calm anti-Japan rhetoric, delink wartime history from the islands dispute and open senior political channels to Japan”, says China Analyst Yanmei Xie. “Japan should avoid actions and comments suggesting revisionist history views”.
“November’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit is a chance for the two leaders to meet and smooth troubled waters”, says Daniel Pinkston, North East Asia Deputy Project Director. “Both countries should seize it”.