Old Enemies: Tensions Rise Between Japan & China




by Liam Elphick
Tensions between two of the world’s largest economic powerhouses are rising in the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

Several comments made at the 2014 World Economic Forum have created significant controversy, sparking fears of a military conflict. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe stated at the Forum that his country’s relationship with China was in a “similar situation” to that between Germany and Britain before World War I: when the two European nations were major trading partners, before Britain declared war on Germany on 4th August 1914.  In response, Qin Gang, a spokesman for China’s foreign ministry, asked of Mr Abe, “Rather than using pre-World War I Anglo-German relations, why don’t you deeply examine your mistakes during the First Sino-Japanese War, the Japanese colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula and the fascist war that Japan launched on victim countries in World War II?” This statement was further accentuated by the comments from Wu Xinbo, a Chinese university dean considered close to the Chinese leadership, who described Mr Abe as a “troublemaker”, comparing him to Kim Jong-un, the North Korean dictator.

Simmering conflict between the two Asian nations is not a new phenomenon. Imperialist Japan inflicted indescribable horrors on the Chinese nation during their invasion and occupation of China from 1937 – with the death of some 35 million Chinese people and estimates of 600 billion US dollars worth of damage. In the 1937 Nanjing Massacre alone, it is believed that Japanese troops killed at least 300,000 Chinese people – often referred to as one of the most terrible atrocities of World War II. Despite a period of warm relations during the early part of the 21st century, helped by the release of a joint study conducted by China and Japan in 2010 which provided for a new consensus on the issue of the Pacific War, Mr Abe’s late-2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japanese Class-A war criminals of World War II,  has been a key contributor in renewing Chinese anger towards Japan’s past brutalities. Chinese Ambassador to Slovenia Zhang Xianyi, in a signed article published in Slovenia, vehemently denounced the visit, stating that “Japan has never sincerely faced (their World War II) atrocities”, further adding that Abe’s visit to the Shrine was akin to someone placing flowers on Adolf Hitler’s tomb.

Chinese aggression in the East China Sea has also enraged Japan – reaching a flashpoint last November when China claimed an air defense identification zone over a chain of islands that the two nations have disputed claims over – known as Senkaku by Japan and Diayou by China. Increasing Japanese militarisation has also only served to heighten strained relations with China, as Mr Abe has sought to amend the nation’s Constitution to grow its military, contrary to its mandated limit of maintaining an army only for the purpose of defense against an outside aggressor.

Many prominent figures have noted the significant risk now posed by the two powers. The commander of United States forces in the Pacific, Admiral Samuel Locklear, told a news conference in January that “the risk calculation can grow” when nations as large as Japan and China have deep disagreements but are not communicating with each other and when there is no clear resolution in sight.. Ian Bremmer, a political scientist who founded the Eurasia Group, a political risk consulting firm, stated at the World Economic Forum that the biggest risk of conflict between China and Japan was “the possibility of a mistake (in the East Asia Sea) where someone gets killed”, noting that the two nations are “scrambling their fighters in the East China Sea every day.” There has never before been so many Chinese and Japanese ships and planes patrolling the seas and skies simultaneously, nor such a huge risk of an accident or miscalculation that leads to an unavoidable military conflict. Similar concerns were noted during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962, where Cold War tensions between the United States and the then-Soviet Union reached their height. While the global context of Japan-China relations are far too different for a similar event to occur in the Diayou/Senkaku Islands, the strained political relations and propaganda war between the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War are certainly reflected in the current relationship between Japan and China. Mr Bremmer’s has also noted that, “The Chinese have written off Shinzo Abe as someone they can potentially work with. They mistrust him completely. They believe he is belligerent toward them and believe an escalatory policy is the appropriate one to pursue.”

This strain is not limited to government officials, however. According to a 2013 BBC World Service Poll, just 5% of Japanese people view China’s influence positively, while 74% of Chinese people view Japan’s influence negatively: the most negative perception of Japan in the world.

Despite the close geographical proximity of the nations, the significance of tension between China and Japan clearly stretches far beyond the bounds of the East China Sea. In 2010, the Japanese government gave in to Chinese demands by releasing a Chinese fishing boat captain who allegedly rammed two Japanese Coast Guard ships in the waters near the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Last week, the Japanese government commenced legal proceedings against the Chinese fishing boat captain, claiming compensation for the incident. The message is clear: in 2010, Japan might have been willing to back down to Chinese demands, but the situation is entirely different in 2014. Japan, increasingly brazen and audacious, is proving a willingness to deliberately incense China: and that is a worrying sight for the Asia-Pacific region especially. For a region containing many developing nations and growing multinational organisations aimed at improving relations and national ties, after centuries of conflict, the last thing any Asia-Pacific state desires is significant tension between arguably two of the region’s most important members. The effectiveness of multipolar relations in the Asia-Pacific region and its multinational organisations certainly faces a momentous threat from recent tension between Japan and China.

Add this to China’s rapidly growing military presence in the region – double digit defense spending increases and the creation of an air defense identification zone in the East China Sea that was denounced by both the United States and Japan – and it is easy to see why Shin Tanaka, president of a Japanese communications consultancy, has labelled the China-Japan conflict a “real war”. While Mr Abe has consistently re-stated his nation’s policy that they will never again wage a war, it is impossible to ignore the recent and dramatic build-up of tension across the East China Sea.

Of course, many believe that deep economic and commercial ties between the two nations will prevent any Japan-China military conflict. But as Richard Katz, publisher of the Oriental Economist Report, has written, “China has started to delink economics from politics”, realising it needs Japan’s money as much as Japan needs China’s markets. The public pressure on political leaders in both China and Japan to appear tough on each other will only grow the likelihood that the political tension between the two nations will come to blows: regardless of their deepening economic ties. In light of both nations embarking on significant domestic reforms, the temptation for each government to scapegoat and lash out at the other may prove too much.


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