TOKYO: Japan and China will mark 50 years of diplomatic relations this month with few public celebrations, as growing friction over territorial rivalries and military spending strain ties.
The world’s second and third largest economies are key trading partners and just a few years ago looked set for a diplomatic flourish, with plans for a state visit from Chinese President Xi Jinping.
But since then, ties have soured dramatically as Beijing bolsters its military, projects power regionally and beyond, and takes a tougher line on the disputed territory.
In recent months, Chinese missiles have reportedly fallen into Japan’s exclusive economic zone, and Tokyo has protested what it calls increasing air and sea violations.
Japan also regularly complains about Chinese activity around the contested and Tokyo-controlled Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims and calls the Diaoyus.
“Chinese ships have been hanging around for dozens of days in the East China Sea, while an artificial island and a base have already been built in the South China Sea,” said Kenichiro Sasae, director of the Japan Institute of International Affairs. .
“That makes us wonder: how far will China’s ambition go in terms of naval power?” added Sasae, a former ambassador to Washington and deputy foreign minister.
The war in Ukraine has only deepened the rift, with Japan supporting Western allies opposed to Russia’s invasion while Beijing avoids criticizing Moscow.
And the conflict has refocused attention on whether China could attempt to forcibly reunite Taiwan with the mainland, prompting Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida to warn that war in Ukraine “could be Asia from the East tomorrow”.
“Anxious about China”
Beijing and Tokyo normalized relations in a joint communiqué on September 29, 1972, which formally ended their state of war and saw Japan drop its recognition of Taiwan.
Economic ties grew rapidly and steadily, but political relations were more volatile, going through a series of crises, including over the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu Islands.
Beijing’s rise to power has left Japan “worried about China”, said Rumi Aoyama, director of the Waseda Institute for Contemporary China Studies.
“Japan views China’s activities in the Senkaku Islands as problematic and involving a ‘fundamental interest’,” Aoyama told Agence France-Presse (AFP).
“But the problem is that China doesn’t understand this Japanese perspective. Instead, it tends to see Japan as just following whatever the United States says,” she said.
Tokyo has been a longtime and key US ally, but it has expanded its partnerships as a bulwark against Beijing.
He has backed a revived “Quad” alliance with Australia, India and the United States, and in June Kishida became the first Japanese leader to attend a North Atlantic Treaty Organization summit.
“China is growing in power and confidence. This is a trend that cannot be ignored,” said Ken Endo, security expert and professor of international politics at the University of Tokyo.
Japan must “consistently state internationally” that changing the status quo by force, whether in Ukraine or Taiwan, is unacceptable, he said.
Tokyo needs a more robust defense capability — something Kishida and his ruling party have already publicly backed — to show that “it will cost a lot if you invade us,” Endo added.
Japan is reportedly considering increasing defense spending to 2% of gross domestic product within five years, up from 1% currently.
It would represent a sea change in Japan, whose pacifist constitution still limits its military capacity, but a modest increase over decades of extra spending by Beijing.
It could also carry its own dangers, stoking regional tensions, if communication with China is not handled carefully, Sasae said.
“Every country has contingency plans, including China, but Japan should make it clear that it doesn’t want a military confrontation,” he said.
Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of China before and during World War II remains a sore point, with Beijing accusing Tokyo of failing to redeem its past.
Visits by Japanese officials to the Yasukuni Shrine which honors the war dead – including convicted war criminals – regularly draw Beijing’s ire.
Despite all these tensions, the two countries remain economically linked: China is Japan’s largest trading partner, and Japan is China’s second after the United States.
And reports suggest Tokyo may be looking for Xi-Kishida talks in the coming months, online or in person.
Business relations are “a decisive factor in stopping a free fall in the relationship”, said Aurelio Insisa, a history professor at the University of Hong Kong and author of a book on China-Japan relations.
But they may not be enough to unfreeze the links.
“Beijing’s behavior in its neighborhood and Tokyo’s perception of it are the two main factors capable of changing the current dynamic,” Insisa said. “I wouldn’t bet on any improvement on those two fronts.”