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"Time Is On Our Side" - A Chinese Look At New Japan-China Cold War

Anti-Japan rally in Shenyang, China
Anti-Japan rally in Shenyang, China
Zhang Jianjing


In China, anti-Japanese sentiment is running very high. The call for a military occupation of the Diaoyu Islands is popular among the public. Managing Sino-Japanese relations and maintaining peace in the East China Sea has become a matter of urgency.

China and Japan’s conflicting claims over the sovereignty of the Diaoyu Islands have always been a fundamental difference. But for a long time this disagreement did not affect the development of the two nations’ relationship. From the beginning of China-Japan diplomatic relations, both countries have had a certain interest in “shelving” the dispute. The consensus maintained the status quo: although the Japanese controlled the islands de facto, the Chinese took no measures to seize or occupy the islands.

Nevertheless, China has sovereignty over these islands. Any display of words and deeds as to the sovereignty or rule of the islands without agreement from China is a violation of China’s interests.

So why is it getting more and more difficult to maintain the status quo?

First, the involvement of non-governmental forces continues to affect the status quo. Historically, Japan has always encouraged its citizens to explore overseas whereas China had a ban on maritime expansion. However times have changed and in the future it will be normal for citizens of the two nations to encounter each other at sea.

Second, the balance of power in East Asia is changing – it is tilting in favor of China. Many Japanese are anxious about this. Japan has a powerful incentive to seize the initiative, taking advantage of the current situation, consolidating its position so as to reinforce its bargaining position in the future.

China needs to respond calmly, without haste or rush. As long as China sticks to market-oriented reforms and opening up its economy, its technology level, economic strength and international influence will continue to improve, and China will ultimately achieve a dominant position relative to Japan.

Military conflict

Many people believe that with China’s current strength it can take over the Diaoyu Islands and recover sovereignty and control over the islands. This would mean the outbreak of a China-Japan military conflict.

Is the military solution the best choice? No. Is Chinese military occupation of the islands a permanent solution? No. Will Japan throw in the towel if China wins? No.

The conflict would be prolonged and intense. In history, examples abound where “the war was won, but the peace was lost.” This is the precise reason that the Japanese right wing continues to provoke. China should use its best diplomatic, economic and political means to deal with the issue so that China’s overall strategic situation is not affected.

China should take the long view in dealing with this dispute. In modern times, China has handled most of its territorial disputes with the diplomatic measure of “non-recognition.” This has solved most of disagreements between China and its neighboring countries and also with countries that had overseas territories in China.

The best way to safeguard China’s interests is for it to adhere to the principle of the maintaining the status quo, resolutely refusing to recognize attempts to change the status quo, and simultaneously fighting back against such behavior. A military conflict should be a last resort. This position, in line with international justice, is bound to gain the favor of international opinion.

Japan and China can't be real partners

In these circumstances, China should handle its relations with Japan by focusing on two points.

First, a bilateral strategic dialogue has to be enforced. The fundamental reason that disagreements continue to emerge between the two nations is that from a strategic point of view they have identified few common interests.

During the Cold War, China made peace and normalized its diplomatic relations with Japan because of common strategic needs. In the 1980s and 1990s, Japanese technology and capital, as well as China’s opening market, encouraged the two nations to maintain a good relationship.

However, these factors have changed. On a global level, Japan cannot become China’s strategic partner. In East Asia, considering historical issues, Japan alone cannot become China’s preferred partner; on other issues there exists a certain strategic competition between the two nations.

So China-Japan relations remain at a lukewarm level, and can never be upgraded to a strategic collaboration level. The two countries’ future relations need hard work to find common strategies as well as consensus.

Second, Japan must face the emerging security framework in East Asia. The current core of Japan’s security structure is the U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, a legacy of the end of World War II. This agreement safeguards Japan, but it also isolates it from other countries of the region and makes it difficult for Japan to be integrated as a completely Asian country.

As Japan’s neighbors are growing increasingly strong, its strategic position in comparison has become more and more irrelevant, a reality Japan has not encountered before and needs to face. It needs to learn from Germany to completely abandon its imperial dreams and become a humble Asian citizen.

U.S. policy regarding the islands

The message released by the Obama administration over the dispute is that it is between China and Japan and has nothing to do with the U.S. This is quite intriguing.

America is taking an “equidistant” diplomatic route to avoid making efforts for others. This more or less implies that it is urging Japan to ease its stance. If Japan insists on military conflict with China, the United States would be forced to fulfill its defense commitments. Obviously, America does not wish to be hijacked by a few reckless Japanese, and forced into a conflict that would damage its standing and interests in the Asia-Pacific region.

The low-key approach of the U.S. has deep-seated considerations. First, it wants to let the balance of power play its natural role. Second, if the U.S. takes sides, it would present a huge risk for America’s Northeast Asian strategic zone. Third, the crisis over the Diaoyu Islands and Huangyan Island, also known as theScarborough Reef, has prompted the United States to reassess the risks behind its "Return to Asia” strategy.

We believe that in the short term the U.S. does not want to convey a radical signal which would mislead other countries into believing that its "Return to Asia" would bring a revolutionary adjustment of its regional strategies. China should make full use of this policy and conduct active diplomacy towards the U.S.

Old hatreds die hard

Due to Japan's invasion of China in 1931, many Chinese people have a strong hatred of Japan or harbor anti-Japanese sentiments. In Japan, some people know little about the atrocities of the Japanese invasion and lack both reflection and repentance. Meanwhile the right-wing forces in Japan still try to obscure this part of their history. This is to be resolutely condemned and boycotted.

However, it should be noted that today's Japan is no longer a belligerent country. Inside Japan there are powerful forces that contain the resurgence of any militarism. These forces are constitutional as well as institutional.

From a historical point of view, it was only when China was in civil unrest, divided, closed, and backward that Japan had the opportunity to test their ambition of dominating the continent. When the country is united, prosperous, reformed, and open, it is impossible for Japan to pose a threat to China.

As China grows increasingly strong after more than 30 years of reforms, its relations with the world are changing. Relations that were originally certain have become uncertain. Countries where China had no stake are now very important. Issues that were ignored are now controversies. As one of the bigger countries, China has the most difficult strategic situation. It has many land neighbors and a very long maritime border, requiring large forces to guard its territory. Other countries have an opportunity to find an operational opening.

China is facing a specific “security dilemma” during the process of its rise as a great power. If China does not display its military strength and its will when it is provoked, other countries will continue to be tempted to erode its interests; whereas if China does display its military power and its will to use it, these countries will proclaim that "China does indeed pose a threat."

Such a "security dilemma" will continue to accompany the rise of China for a very long time. Therefore China needs to take action to build a multilateral security system and to find a way of handling differences with an open attitude and through negotiations.

This is the new reality China must face squarely.

Considering this new reality, China’s most important task at the moment is to reach a consensus on major strategic interests between the ruling class and the public: the consensus that, for a long time yet, development is China’s primary goal, and that domestic reform and development are its top priority.

Setting development as its primary goal requires China to maintain strategic restraint for the long term so as to create the essential conditions for domestic reform and development.

Otto von Bismarck said that a nation sails on the river of time. The competition between China and Japan can be regarded as a race against time. If the current trend is not reversed, time is no doubt in China’s favor.

However, it is difficult to use linear equations to derive the complexity of the competition between countries. Experience of history tells us that a country's development has ups and downs, and that a country often declines for internal reasons.

In this sense, internally, China also has a race against time. Because increasingly powerful interest groups have a fear of further reform, China might misuse its "time window," squander a historic opportunity and miss out on the reform process. Compared to this challenge, the Sino-Japanese race against time is trivial.

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