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20.11.2013 г.

Japan-China Relations in the 2010s: From the "Sea of Fraternity" to the "Sea of Problems"

Anna Kireyeva

The article reviews the transformation of the Japan-China relations from 2009 to the end of 2012, i.e. during the period when the Democratic Party of Japan stayed in power and after the new cabinet of the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan led by S. Abe has taken over.

Despite the initiatives of Prime Minister Hatoyama of Japan to develop bilateral relations in a comprehensive manner and transform the East China Sea into a "Sea of Brotherhood," the positive period in relations between the two countries ended when Naoto Kan succeeded him as prime minister in 2010 because of an incident at the disputed Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands. The incident seriously exacerbated Sino-Japanese relations have entered a period of cooling, when the actions of China in the East China Sea are increasingly beginning to be seen in Japan as a threat to the security of both official and public level. Positive impulses in bilateral relations could not reverse the general trend of tension because of frequent visits of Chinese ships in territorial waters controlled by Japan disputed islands and active exploration and development of China's oil and gas fields in the East China Sea.

China and Japan (thanks to the Japan-US security alliance) are the most powerful economic, political, and military powers in Asia, therefore the relationship between these countries is of great importance for the development of regional cooperation and integration. What characterizes the relationship of these countries is the presence of two co-existing trends: strategic cooperation and strategic rivalry. Though important economic partners, they remain opponents in the spheres of politics, security, and ideology, and face a number of unresolved contradictions that markedly complicate the development of relations. These factors, including the territorial dispute, as well as some problems of the past, the differences in positions with respect to Taiwan, and others, resemble an iceberg that is not always visible under the water, but that may emerge at any moment and provoke a sharp deterioration in relations.

The decision to nationalize the Senkaku / Diaoyu adopted by the Government of Japan on September 11, 2012, brought in its wake an unprecedented deterioration of the territorial conflict and a serious crisis in Sino-Japanese relations. In addition to political steps taken by the Chinese authorities at the official level, large-scale anti-Japanese demonstrations causing major economic damage to the Japanese took place in the PRC. Both China and Japan have repeatedly come forth with diametrically opposite interpretation of each other's actions: whereas Japan considered that the transaction related exclusively to property rights and had nothing to do with the question of sovereignty, China perceived the move as a violation of the "gentlemen's agreement" that Japan did not recognize. China, acting against the background of the modernization of its military potential, used the tactic of reactive assertiveness, which consists in a significant increase in Chinese activities in the area of disputed islands so as to prevent Japan's unilateral control over them and create a new status quo, involving its competing presence on the territory. The case of radar guidance in early 2013 suggested that the conflict over the islands was escalating to a military conflict between China and Japan, thus becoming the lowest point in the development of their relations since the normalization of 1972.

The coming of new leaders to power in China and Japan did not release tension in the bilateral relations. Seen against the backdrop of increasing distrust of one another, President Xi Jinping's idea of the "Chinese dream" - the great revival of the Chinese nation, and the nationalist policies of Japan's Prime Minister Abe leave ever fewer opportunities to improve relations. Perceiving China's actions as a threat to its security, Japan boosts the capacity of its Self-Defense Forces on the Chinese border, relies even more on strengthening the political and military alliance with the United States, and, according to some experts, is busy creating an "anti-Chinese network" in the Asia Pacific region.

Yet, improvement of relations between Japan and China is part of Abe's foreign policy, which is geared to enhance Japan's contribution to maintaining peace and stability in East Asia and its role on the world stage. Moreover, China is Japan's key economic partner without which the realization of Abe's ambitious goal of lead the country out of prolonged recession would be extremely difficult. For all that, the two countries' striving for regional and global leadership determines the competitive nature of their relations and limits the potential for its improvement in the future.

Increased patrolling both countries of waters around the disputed islands creates a security dilemma, heightening the risk of accidental military confrontation and destabilizes the situation in the region. At the same time, pronouncements by the leaders of both China and Japan on the need to prevent armed conflict and attempts to establish bilateral relations give hope that the worst-case scenario may be avoided.
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