19th November 2023 – (Beijing) Relations between Japan and China have declined markedly over the past decade due to several contentious issues. Chief among these are conflicting territorial claims, China’s rise as a military and economic power, and concerns over food safety following the Fukushima nuclear disaster. However, with prudent diplomacy focused on shared interests, Japan can steer its course back to a constructive and mutually beneficial relationship with its powerful neighbour.
Tensions escalated in 2012 when Japan nationalised the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which are claimed by both countries. This sparked massive protests across China. Then in 2013, China declared an Air Defense Identification Zone overlapping Japan’s own zone over the East China Sea. Chinese military jets and ships frequently enter the contested waters around the islands to assert China’s claim. Japan worries this “grey zone” coercion could lead to miscalculation and conflict.
The rivalry extends beyond the islands as China projects its growing military farther from its shores. Japan has bolstered its defenses with increased personnel and hardware including converting some destroyers to aircraft carriers. It has deepened security cooperation with other regional partners like Australia and India to counterbalance China. This feeds Chinese fears of containment.
Japan also joined Western sanctions against Russia over the war in Ukraine, while China took a neutral stance. This widened the trust gap between the two nations. Some Japanese politicians even call for Japan to acquire its own nuclear weapons to deter China, further stoking tensions.
Then there is the conflicting trade relationship. China is Japan’s largest trading partner, but official development assistance from Japan to China ended in 2018. Japan has also begun subsidizing Japanese companies to shift production out of China. It has restricted exports of advanced semiconductor manufacturing equipment to China, fraying economic ties.
Add to these issues the lingering bitterness in China over Japan’s wartime atrocities, which prompted anti-Japanese nationalism there. And Japanese public opinion has turned sharply negative toward China in light of perceived aggression and dishonesty on various issues. These accumulated grievances have brought the relationship to its lowest point in decades.
Reversing this downward trajectory will require political courage and flexibility in Japan to craft a new collaborative framework with China. While fundamental reconciliation over history and territorial disputes may remain elusive in the near term, focusing pragmatically on shared interests can help thaw relations.
One key area is joint development of oil and gas resources. The East China Sea contains significant untapped reserves that would benefit both countries in an era of energy insecurity. Japan has reached similar joint agreements with Korea over contested waters. Building trust around jointly managing and sharing in the bounty from disputed maritime zones could increase stability and interdependence.
Another domain is climate change mitigation and adaptation. As major emitters and coastal nations vulnerable to climate impacts, Japan and China should lead in reducing greenhouse gases and cooperating on renewable energy. They can also collaborate on protecting communities from sea level rise, resource scarcity and extreme weather. Climate partnership gives more reasons to resolve differences peacefully.
Expanding people-to-people ties will also ease tensions. Educational, cultural and athletic exchanges at all levels can build empathy between societies. Tourism likewise promotes appreciation and goodwill. Before the pandemic, Chinese travellers made up the largest group of foreign tourists visiting Japan. Easing visa barriers can allow tourism to recover and deepen societal bonds.
On security, stabilising mechanisms like a maritime communication hotline can manage disputes. Enhanced military transparency and discussion of threat perceptions build confidence and avoid miscalculations. Intelligence sharing on common concerns like North Korea’s nuclear ambitions can demonstrate the value of cooperation. Officially relegating World War Two history to the past with a forward-looking joint statement resets relations.
Regarding trade, allowing reciprocal direct investment in each other’s markets mutes talk of decoupling. Negotiating a bilateral free trade pact creates incentives against conflict. And integrating China into the successor of the Japan-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement binds it into a rules-based economic order. Supply chain dependencies and commercial stakes make conflict more costly.
Of course substantive reconciliation cannot blossom overnight. But incremental trust-building creates a gradual virtuous cycle. As attitudes improve on both sides, solving territorial claims becomes more feasible. Ultimately, Japan and China may collaborate to develop contested areas, and even jointly administer the islands while shelving sovereignty disputes.
Progress on nuclear concerns can also build momentum. Japan’s decision to discharge treated radioactive water from the wrecked Fukushima nuclear plant into the ocean provoked sharp opposition. But Japan now has a chance to mitigate China’s objections by addressing its legitimate expectations.
First, provide maximum transparency regarding water treatment methods and safety inspection results. Make these open to review by Chinese scientists and international bodies. Second, allow Chinese experts to monitor radiation levels independently in discharge areas and broader ocean currents. This verifies Japan’s assurances that any risks are negligible.
Third, establish a joint fund to support Chinese fishing communities impacted by import bans on Japanese seafood. Compensating those affected demonstrates accountability and empowers stakeholders in China who wish to see the dispute resolved. Finally, issuing a formal apology for insufficient prior consultation acknowledges China’s grievances. This creates space for cooperation going forward.
Adopting these steps in a spirit of reconciliation puts the Fukushima row on a path to resolution. It transforms the narrative from one of distrust to one of cooperation, ultimately easing the import ban. Each action enhances habits of mutual dignity and problem-solving. And it strengthens the hand of Chinese leaders inclined toward diplomacy but wary of public backlash for compromising.
Failure to proactively improve relations ensures relations will continue deteriorating. Heightened military activities multiply the risk of mishaps and confrontation. Economic decoupling raises costs for both nations and sows instability. Mounting nationalism inhibits compromise. Without countervailing efforts, a self-reinforcing negative dynamic makes conflict more likely, if not inevitable.
By contrast, diplomacy focused on interests over ideology opens avenues for hope. Shelving disputes to enable cooperation around climate change, energy and fishing resources its the wise path forward. Thickening economic interdependence raises the costs of any rupture. And exposing young generations to each others’ societies through educational and cultural exchanges builds the foundation for an enduring friendship not hostage to the prejudices of the past.
The current downward trajectory in relations between Japan and China is lamentable but not irreversible. Despite discord over history, security and other sensitive issues, sound statecraft and far-sighted leadership can set relations on a positive course. Japan would strengthen its own prosperity and security in the process. Reaching across differences to grasp shared interests is the only honourable choice.