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A reception is held by the Chinese embassy in Japan to celebrate the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China and the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations between China and Japan in Tokyo on September 22, 2022. Photo: Xinhua

The deep divide: Japan and China mark 50 years of ties, but tensions unlikely to ease, analysts say

  • Mutual distrust has reached a point where virtually every move is assumed to be in bad faith and to pose some form of threat, observers note
  • Recent incidents of Chinese aggression in the Asia-Pacific pushed Japan to forge closer security ties with US, advocate firmer line on Beijing, they add
Japan and China on Thursday mark the 50th anniversary of the treaty that normalised bilateral relations, although neither side appears to be making much effort to disguise the deep – and deepening – divisions between the two countries.
Half a century after Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai signed the landmark agreement in the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, there appears to be few areas on which the two governments can unequivocally agree.

Japanese analysts say they do not expect relations to improve in the near future, even in areas where the nations’ interests would appear to align, such as trade or environmental concerns.

The mutual distrust, they say, has reached a point where virtually every move is assumed to be in bad faith and to pose some form of threat.

Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka (left) talking with his Chinese counterpart Zhou Enlai during a visit to Beijing in September 1972. Photo: JIJI Press/AFP

“We will see what both sides say on the day of the anniversary, but the reality is that nothing is going to erase the strategic tensions that presently exist between the two nations,” Ryo Hinata-Yamaguchi, a project assistant professor at the Research Center for Advanced Science and Technology at the University of Tokyo, told This Week in Asia.

The perceived threat to Japan was underlined on Wednesday when three Chinese coastguard ships entered Japanese territorial waters around disputed islands in the East China Sea. Known in Japan as the Senkakus, Beijing claims the archipelago as its territory and refers to the islets as the Diaoyu Islands.
The Chinese ships were tracking three Japanese fishing vessels, according to the Japanese coastguard. The intrusion into Japanese waters is the 27th so far this year and the first since September 8.
A Chinese Navy ship spotted in Japan’s territorial waters near Yakushima and Kuchinoerabu islands in southwestern Japan earlier in September 2022. Photo: Japan’s Defence Ministry Joint Staff Office/AFP
Tokyo has condemned the incident, describing it as a violation of international law. A strongly worded protest was submitted to Beijing, with Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihiko Isozaki describing the Chinese ships’ activities as “extremely regrettable and totally unacceptable”. Japan would continue to take a “cool and decisive” approach in its dealings with China, he added.

Japan is also monitoring the activities of a joint fleet of seven Chinese and Russian warships operating close to the Izu Islands, directly south of Tokyo. The vessels are believed to have taken part in recent multinational exercises hosted by Russia in its Far East regions.

There are plenty of other examples of Chinese aggression against other countries in the Asia-Pacific region, Japanese analysts point out, that can only give cause for concern.

China, in turn, has countered by saying that it was the onus of both sides to work towards advancing the relationship instead of “wavering or back-pedalling” on topics such as the Taiwan issue.

“It is important that the two sides take a strategic and long-term perspective, bear in mind the fundamental interests of the two countries, and translate the political consensus of ‘being each other’s cooperative partners, not a threat’ into policies and actions,” the Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said in remarks during a symposium on Japan-China ties on September 12.

In a commentary published this week, Yang Bojiang, director general of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the state-linked Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, suggested there was still room for an entente. “The two countries should realise there is still huge room for collaboration between them,” he wrote.

China and Japan agree more talks needed to manage tension over Taiwan

In Japan, observers’ comments to This Week in Asia offered no such optimism.

“The vast majority of politicians in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party are deeply concerned about the state of relations and have concluded the behaviour of the Chinese Communist Party in recent months and years is an egregious violation of the spirit of the Japan-China friendship agreement,” said Yoichi Shimada, a professor of international relations at Fukui Prefectural University.
For many in Japan, he said, the Chinese response in August to US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi visiting Taiwan – viewed by Beijing as a renegade province to be retaken by force if necessary – was another indication “that China has little interest in building better relations with Japan”.

“The Chinese military launched missiles that violated Japan’s exclusive economic zone [EEZ] around islands in southern Okinawa Prefecture. And when Tokyo protested, Beijing’s response was that it does not recognise Japan’s EEZ,” Shimada said.

“If China refuses to recognise Japan’s sovereign territory, then what is there to celebrate?”

People walking under a gate in Yokohama’s Chinatown area decorated with a red banner marking the 73rd anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China as well as the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of Sino-Japanese relations. Photo: AFP

Hinata-Yamaguchi agreed the Chinese drills around Taiwan had significantly worsened an already tense situation.

“Those drills were not only a demonstration of China’s ability to carry out a blockade of Taiwan, but also their ability to conduct missile strikes against Japan,” he said.

China’s willingness to participate in military manoeuvres with Russia had stoked those tensions, he added, even if Moscow had little interest in getting involved in actions related to mainland China’s claims to Taiwan while Beijing was working hard to remain at arm’s length over the war in Ukraine.

“It’s a sensitive relationship. It’s not even a ‘marriage of convenience’ but more like casual dating,” he said, adding that Japan would hope the relationship did not progress to something more meaningful.

Trade might be the only area where Japan and China could improve ties, but there were “still concerns here,” Hinata-Yamaguchi said.

“Beijing and Tokyo understand they need each other economically, but Japan is becoming increasingly concerned about economic security,” he said. “Japan wants to reconfigure its economy so that it works with China but, at the same time, ensures that it is not compromising its economic security.”

Shimada underlined that Beijing’s actions left Tokyo with no other option than to forge even closer security and economic ties with the United States.

“If the Communist Party was wise, it would be doing everything in its power to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington, such as by softening its position on the Senkaku Islands,” he said. “Instead, it is doing exactly the opposite and even left-leaning politicians here in Japan are now advocating a firmer line on China and closer ties with the US.”