The most recent development in Sino-Japanese relations, particularly in the security arena, suggests that bilateral relations have already hit bottom and begun to improve gradually. On June 8 of this year, a ten-year overdue agreement between the armed forces of the two countries, ”Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between the Japan-China Defense Authorities,” came into force. This was a result of recently intensified summit-level dialogue, including between Prime Minister Abe Shinzo and President Xi Jinping on November 11, 2017 during their visit to Vietnam for the APEC meeting and between Abe and Premier Li Keqiang during his visit to Japan from May 8 to 11 for the Japan-China-ROK Trilateral Summit meeting. During the former summit, the leaders agreed to “accelerate discussions between defense authorities in order to begin operating a maritime and aerial communication mechanism promptly.” On May 9 during the latter summit, representatives of the two defense authorities signed the agreement for this mechanism.
Soon after Abe returned to power in late 2012, his administration placed high priority on Japan’s relations with China. To do this, it had to start repairing the damaged relations with China due to the negative legacy from the previous administrations. Tensions over issues related to the Senkaku Islands were higher than ever due to a series of incidents. One year after the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) came to power following the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), a Chinese fishing boat rammed into a Japanese coast guard ship near the Senkaku Islands on September 7, 2010. The ship’s captain was detained by the Japanese law enforcement authority for eighteen days before being released. China reacted to this development with a series of retaliations including the restriction of exports of rare-earth minerals to Japan, the arrest of four Japanese nationals in China, and intensified activities of Chinese government ships around the Senkaku Islands. The situation became even worse when Prime Minister Noda Yoshihiko decided to purchase three privately-owned islands that are part of the Senkaku Islands. According to the latest report of the Japanese Coast Guard on its homepage on June 18, 2018, “Chinese government vessels started to enter Japan’s contiguous zone almost daily, except on stormy days,” from September 14, 2012, and such ships “repeatedly intrude into Japan’s territorial sea, at a frequency of about five intrusions per month.” In addition to such Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea, the same tendency in the South China Sea draws the keen attention of Japan’s military planners and hinders an improvement in relations between the two militaries.
Another factor that slowed down the Abe administration’s efforts to improve relations with Beijing is criticism of Abe as a revisionist backed by a group of nationalists. The premier has long been seen as a conservative politician, and there was a certain level of worry that he might go too far in his nationalism and provoke Japan’s neighbors, both China and South Korea. Indeed, on December 26, 2013, a year after coming into office, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine, drawing keen attention from not only Asian neighbors but also Japan’s only ally. The American Embassy in Tokyo released a statement immediately after the visit asserting that “the United States is disappointed that Japan’s leadership has taken an action that will exacerbate tension with Japan’s neighbors.” As such criticism was officially expressed by the US government, it is natural to see China and South Korea, which suffered from Japan’s conduct until 1945, taking history issues seriously. This may have aroused doubts among policymakers in Beijing over Japan’s seriousness about improving its relationship with China.
Despite tense Sino-Japanese relations, the second Abe administration placed a fairly high priority on its efforts to have better relations with China from the beginning. Japan’s National Security Strategy (NSS 2013) released by the Abe administration in December 2013 states that “stable relations between Japan and China are an essential factor for peace and stability of the Asia-Pacific region.” The major concept of the strategy is ‘Proactive Contribution to Peace’ based on the principles of international cooperation. Among the prioritized targets for international cooperation, NSS 2013 placed China right next to cooperation with US allies and partners such as Australia and ASEAN countries, noting that “Japan will strive to construct and enhance a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests with China.” In addition to the such efforts at engagement, the strategy touches on hedging efforts by stating that Japan will “promote measures such as establishing a framework to avert or prevent unexpected situations,” and “respond firmly but in a calm manner” against attempts to change the status quo by coercion.
Under the newly operating “Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between the Japan-China Defense Authorities,” the two militaries are able to have annual meetings of government experts at the director general level, and to have common rules for crews of SDF-PLA aircraft and ships for real time communications on the front line. Among agreed upon measures, an important step, left as homework, is to establish a hotline between the two defense authorities. In the mid-1990s the air component of the JSDF established a hotline with the ROK Air Force through which frontline tactical air control centers of the two militaries can have real time communications, and Japanese and Korean air controllers have enjoyed daily conversations to inform both sides of their respective daily operations. If such a hotline were established between the SDF and the PLA, it might enhance mutual confidence while providing both militaries with measures to avoid any unintentional dangers on the front line.
To promote SDF-PLA communications, quasi-official military exchanges may have significance, particularly when the government level experiences difficulties. The Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a private organization specializing in international exchange programs, organized and funded the SDF-PLA field grade officers exchange program from 2001 to 2011. In total, 126 SDF officers visited China and 207 PLA officers visited Japan for various exchange programs such as visits to military facilities and organizations in the two countries. This program stalled when bilateral relations worsened after the government of Japan’s decision to purchase three of the Senkaku Islands in 2012. In 2018, this program resumed when 25 PLA officers visited Japan in April and had exchanges at the Ministry of Defense and facilities of the three services of the SDF. During the summit between Abe and Li in May, the two specifically mentioned this exchange program as evidence of improving relations according to the press release by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, dated May 9, 2018.
A number of factors are having a positive impact on relations. First is Abe’s personal style of diplomacy. In 2007 when he came to power for his first term, the administration chose China and South Korea for his first foreign trip. This may have come from his family legacy since his grandfather, Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke, visited Asian countries in order to communicate with post-WWII Asian leaders who had suffered from Japanese conduct during the war before visiting the United States to confirm the credibility of the alliance.
The second factor may be the closer policy priorities of the two countries vis-à-vis the Korean Peninsula. In 2017, tension over the peninsula was higher than ever; so that all the relevant parties including Japan, China, the United States, and South Korea became highly sensitive about the issues related to North Korea. Their interests and policy priorities of denuclearization along with the peace and stability of the peninsula came closer than ever because of the extreme danger posed by North Korea’s repeated tests of missiles and nuclear weapons. The United States demonstrated its seriousness by deploying robust military forces around the peninsula such as aircraft carriers, strategic bombers, and guided missile submarines. It was a serious crisis, where both the dangers of war and opportunities for peace appeared to be in close proximity.
The third factor is more fundamental as it relates to drastic changes in the strategic landscape caused by the rise of China. On the positive side, cooperation between the world’s number two and number three economies will bring tremendous benefit for both countries and the rest of the world. The other side of the coin is serious worries about China’s expansionism in both the economic and military fields. The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) may provide opportunities for the acceleration of growth in the region where China is focusing, while the rest of the regional countries may fear the PLA’s increasing influence in the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean to the Middle East where the lifelines of many players including Japan exist. There is an important fact that there are substantial overlaps between areas for the BRI, the idea of the “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” proposed by Foreign Minister Aso Taro in 2006, and current US policies with particular emphasis on the Indo-Pacific region. The best scenario is where such common interests lead Japan, the United States, and China to work together to achieve overlapping goals while the worst is that they compete against each other and everyone ends up losing.
The fourth factor for improvement of bilateral relations may be the most serious if not the most important—it is both countries’ fear of unintended escalation of the situation surrounding the Senkaku Islands. In the area, Japanese and Chinese coast guards have been facing each other in very high tension while being extremely cautious to avoid escalation. The PLA and the SDF have been trying their best not to get involved in any kind of military confrontation. Should such efforts fail, the public in both countries might get too excited for the two governments to control hostile sentiments, causing further deterioration and potentially confrontation, which would damage their national interests. Thus, measures to avoid such an escalation are essential.
Having observed a gradually improving political atmosphere, we need to contemplate the short- to mid-term prospects for the promotion of SDF-PLA relations in non-sensitive areas such as peacekeeping operations (PKO) and humanitarian assistance and disaster relief operations (HA/DR). In 1992, when Japan dispatched an SDF engineer battalion to Cambodia for the first time, a PLA engineer battalion was deployed next to the Japanese contingent and they got along fairly well. Since then, both militaries have cooperated on several occasions for UN PKO in various places such as South Sudan. HA/DR is another area for the two militaries to work together. As military forces can operate in areas where social infrastructure is severely damaged or non-existent, their capabilities of emergency rescue, air/land/sea transportation, supply, medical support, civil engineering, and communication are extremely useful in cases of severe natural disasters such as an earthquake or typhoon. Such military activities are important in the area from Northeast Asia to South Asia because a great number of highly disaster-prone countries in the world exist in this region. In Southeast Asia in particular, HA/DR often involves robust multi-national, civil-military cooperation. The SDF and the PLA are two of the most capable militaries in Asia for HA/DR as they are well-equipped and highly trained while experienced in such operations through their responses to various natural disasters such as the 2008 Sichuan earthquake, the 2010 Haiti earthquake, and the 2011 Great East Japan earthquake. As a start, bilateral SDF-PLA HA/DR exercises will be a good option while the two militaries could go further in the long run to take the lead in regional efforts for multi-national, civil military cooperation for HA/DR.