In recent years, Japanese attitudes towards China have deteriorated amidst Tokyo’s policies, and the deterioration is directly related to China’s growing influence in the world. As a result, today, according to a public opinion poll, 86% of Japanese already have a generally poor view of their great neighbor.
There are several reasons for the dislike between the two countries, apart from their national characters. One of them is the aftermath of World War II and the atrocities of the million-strong Kwantung Army on Chinese soil. The Japanese people are still unable to shake off the complex of being defeated by China in alliance with Russia in World War II, and the Chinese cannot fully forgive the brutality of the Japanese. Moreover, relations between China and Japan deteriorated in 2010 over territorial disputes, and over China’s military build-up and expansion of its air defense zones.
Significant tensions between the two countries came to a head a year ago after Tokyo published another Annual Defense White Paper linking tensions over Taiwan to Japanese security. Meanwhile, Taro Aso, then acting deputy prime minister, in an apparent alignment of Japanese policy with that of the White House and the fact that the PRC claims the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands, had previously stated that Tokyo and Washington “will have to defend Taiwan in emergencies”.
The White Paper’s emphasis on the Taiwan issue is clearly linked to the influence of the Biden administration, which, unlike its predecessor Donald Trump, has placed greater emphasis on US allies in Asia, and Japan is called upon to assist Washington in every way possible in this regard. Moreover, Washington is actively using the whole bouquet of issues that have accumulated in Japan-China relations, including both territorial claims around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands and concerns expressed by the current Japanese political establishment over China’s allegedly expansionist naval policy and the threat of China building up its power in cyberspace, outer space and electronic warfare.
The change in the leadership of the Japanese government has also had a significant impact on the escalating tensions between Tokyo and Beijing. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who wanted to improve relations with China during his reign and visited it in 2018, where he met Xi Jinping and even announced a new era in relations between the two powers, has passed away. Suga’s ascent to power coincided with the worsening of US-China relations. In addition, Nobuo Kishi, who is openly anti-Chinese and has even, according to some media reports, personal contacts with the top brass in Taiwan, has become Minister of Defense.
The tensions between Beijing and Tokyo escalated following the publication of Japan’s Annual White Paper in July this year. In particular, it notes that the trend towards deeper military cooperation between Moscow and Beijing amid Russia’s special military operation in Ukraine is of great concern to Tokyo. The White Paper also points out that the Japanese side has not ruled out the possibility of a full-scale Chinese landing operation in Taiwan.
In an official response to this, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) points out that the White Paper on Defense published by Japan is “full of prejudices… By doing so, Japan is trying to spread the theory of a so-called Chinese military threat. This is blatant interference in China’s internal affairs, contributing to regional tensions. The PRC Army is determined. We have the strength, and we are confident that we can defend the national sovereignty, security and territorial integrity of our country.”
On July 26, Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesperson Wu Qian said that the PLA expresses extreme displeasure and strong protest over such attempts to slander China, “the PRC has already made a serious representation to Tokyo”. In addition, the Chinese Defense Ministry Spokesperson stressed that Beijing was pursuing a peaceful policy in the international arena by pursuing a defensive strategy.
Wu Qian also stressed that the situation in the South China Sea has been touched upon in Japan’s latest edition of the White Paper. “Japan has nothing to do with issues concerning the region… Tokyo’s attempts to disrupt stability there at the behest of the US are a manifestation of irresponsibility,” the Chinese official stated.
The representative of the Ministry of Defense of the People’s Republic of China ended his public statement by saying: “We demand that the Japanese side stop making erroneous statements and take a responsible stance, taking real steps to restore its credibility among neighboring states and the international community.”
The relationship between Beijing and Japan deteriorated further following the G7 statement on the situation around Taiwan. On August 5, Japan’s Ambassador to China, Hideo Tarumi, was summoned to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, along with the EU Ambassadors, to whom Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Deng Li made a serious presentation. According to the Chinese Foreign Ministry, “This G7 statement has tarnished China’s image; we consider it a gross interference in our country’s domestic politics. It seriously violated fundamental principles of international law and contravened agreements between the PRC and Japan.”
At the same time, Deng Li emphasized that Taiwan has long been a colony of Japan and that Tokyo “bears a heavy historical burden on the Taiwan issue”. “The Japanese side should make as cautious statements as possible about this. There is no need to go in the wrong direction,” the Chinese deputy foreign minister pointed out.
The G7 joint statement on Taiwan also prompted the cancellation of a bilateral meeting between the Chinese and Japanese Foreign Ministers in Phnom Penh on August 4. Commenting on the move, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hua Chunying stressed: “China has made it clear that it will no longer schedule a meeting between Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers in Phnom Penh. Japan joined other members of G7 and the EU in issuing a joint statement which contains groundless accusations against China, confounds black and white and tries to justify the US’s infringement on China’s sovereignty. This has caused a public outcry among the Chinese people.”
In response, Japanese Cabinet Secretary General Hirokazu Matsuno could only note on August 5 that “Beijing’s refusal to hold a meeting of the two countries’ foreign ministers on the margins of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations events in Phnom Penh is regrettable”.
Undoubtedly the visit of US House of Representatives Speaker Nancy Pelosi to Taiwan and the outspoken anti-China stance taken by the G7 countries and in particular Tokyo on the situation around Taiwan have further significantly aggravated relations between the two countries. It should be recalled that the G7 countries, while supporting Washington’s planned provocation to bring Pelosi to Taiwan, expressed concern over Beijing’s response to this openly unfriendly move towards the PRC, in particular military exercises with live firing in the waters around Taiwan. However, the G7 countries, acting in line with the US position, have pointed out that it is China’s actions that could allegedly lead to an escalation of the situation. Not Washington’s provocative moves.
Nevertheless, Nancy Pelosi’s scandalous visit to Taiwan and the crisis in US-China relations are already bearing the first fruits – Beijing has declared its desire to expand strategic cooperation with Russia. Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at a meeting with his Russian counterpart Sergey Lavrov in Phnom Penh that Beijing is ready to step up strategic engagement with Russia in order to more effectively defend the international system, in which the UN plays a key role, as well as an order based on generally accepted international law.
Against this background, there have been increasing calls in the US and Washington’s satellite countries, including Japan, to isolate Russia and China and to reduce the intensity of Moscow and Beijing’s cooperation with the G20 countries. However, the closer the G20 summit in Bali, scheduled for November, the more dubious such Washington’s plans look. And this is particularly confirmed by Bloomberg, which has stressed that the US’s drive to isolate Russia and China is failing, the forthcoming G20 summit is unlikely to be a success for Washington. After all, only half of the G20 imposed sanctions on Russia. “It’s an uncomfortable reality confronting Secretary of State Antony Blinken during his extended tour of Southeast Asia and Africa,” the Bloomberg publication said.
As for the further escalation of the conflict between China and Japan, articles with provocative headlines such as “Japan and China on the brink of war?” are increasingly appearing in a number of Western media outlets. However, it should not be forgotten that, apart from radical Chinese officers and a certain part of the current Japanese military and political establishment, most people in both countries are convinced that a real military clash between China and Japan would never come to pass. The same China will never start a war with Japan first, if only because it has the US behind it. No one is interested in military action because its consequences are not predictable: China and the US are nuclear powers, after all.
Valery Kulikov, political expert, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.