• Antoine Roth

Relational stability between China and Japan, its fragility, and its consequences for East Asia

Photo Source: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan

Ever since former Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo made the decision to offer (conditional) support for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in early 2017, relations between the two countries have remained stable and even at times relatively cordial. This despite their respective coastguards’ continued confrontation around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, which had been the cause of an almost complete breakdown of relations between 2012 and 2014. There is still little trust between the two sides, and they have very different visions for the future of East Asia. Strategic competition, rather than cooperation, remains the most prominent feature of Sino-Japanese relations. Nevertheless, they have for now avoided falling into outright mutual hostility and have kept avenues for dialogue open. This situation is quite beneficial for other states in East Asia, while a deterioration of Sino-Japanese ties will have very negative consequences for the region. Unfortunately, the current equilibrium is fragile and can easily break down.

The first positive consequence of Sino-Japanese relational stability for the rest of East Asia is removing a major source of international tensions. One of the most important contributions major powers can make to the maintenance of regional order is managing their relationship with one another to avoid conflicts and frictions that may have a destabilizing effect on the whole region. China and Japan have in recent decades often failed to do so, with tensions over historical, territorial and security issues repeatedly plunging their relationship into bouts of acrimony and mutual recrimination. The result has been competition playing out in regional organizations and forums, with both sides offering different visions of the way forward, leaving other members to try and find compromises.

This competition has grown less intense in the past few years, mostly because both China and Japan have somewhat lost interest in said forums and organizations, using their still regular attendance to do little more than reiterate well-known positions on various regional issues. Instead, both countries have focused on their own diplomatic initiatives – the BRI and other Sinocentric forums for China, the “Quad” for Japan – and on bilateral engagement with individual countries in Southeast Asia. Still, the lowering of Sino-Japanese tensions has at least mostly removed an important source of disharmony in regional diplomacy (although China-US competition has more than taken its place).

It has had more concrete benefits as well, most of all allowing for the completion of the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP) – originally an ASEAN initiative meant to reconcile China’s and Japan’s conflicting plans for an East Asian free trade area. Although negotiations were led by ASEAN, the conclusion of the agreement was made possible by the proactive posture of China and Japan, the two largest economies in the new block. There are hopes that RCEP’s success will open the way for further deepening of regional economic integration. In the realm of development finance as well, the stabilization of Sino-Japanese relations has allowed for increased cooperation between the China-led Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) and the Manila-based but Japan-led Asian Development Bank (ADB). This has, for instance, allowed the two institutions to co-finance COVID-19 response programs in Indonesia and the Philippines.

The main dynamic in Sino-Japanese relations nevertheless remains competitive. When it comes to their policy toward East Asia, this is perhaps especially true of Japan, whose leaders are eager to prevent China from establishing a hegemonic position in the region. Its attempts to counter Chinese influence have been a boon for Southeast Asian states, which have benefited from increased official development assistance and security engagement. Thanks to such efforts, Japan has remained a trusted and valued partner in the region despite the growing gap with China in terms of power and resources. The effects of Sino-Japanese competition for infrastructure projects abroad have also been largely beneficial for Southeast Asian states. Indeed, Japan’s promotion of East-West connectivity projects to join the two oceans in its vision of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” and China’s focus on linking Southeast Asian economies to its own through the BRI in a North-South axis complement each other, offer countries in the region more options to connect to the outside world, and boost overall economic growth.

A competitive but stable Sino-Japanese relationship thus has many advantages for the rest of East Asia. Other regional states should therefore be concerned by signs that competition is at risk of turning into outright hostility. On the Japanese side, years of constant encroachment on the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, human right abuses in Xinjiang, a crackdown in Hong Kong, and growing pressure on Taiwan have hardened attitudes against China among the political elite. Hawkish voices now dominate public discussions of Japan’s China policy. They are putting pressure on the government to align more closely with Washington against Beijing and to push back more strongly against Chinese assertiveness. In China, meanwhile, the political atmosphere has grown fervently nationalistic. Japan, a wartime aggressor that is today growing ever closer to a hostile “Western camp,” is a prime target for retaliation against any undue “provocation.” The increasingly tense situation in the Taiwan Strait can provide the spark that ignites a new round of Sino-Japanese confrontation. Even if such confrontation remains short of an armed conflict, it will prove highly disruptive for the whole of East Asia.

There is unfortunately very little that Southeast Asian states can do to alleviate Sino-Japanese security tensions around Taiwan or the Senkaku/Diaoyu. What they can do, however, is promote the existing avenues for regional cooperation and encourage China and Japan to remain engaged in them, thus reinforcing the incentives to avoid a breakdown in their relationship. This can include following up on RCEP with further discussion of regional economic integration, emphasizing ASEAN+3 as the main forum for discussing economic recovery and health cooperation in the region as the acute phase of the COVID-19 pandemic comes to an end, or encouraging joined Sino-Japanese bids for infrastructure and clean energy projects in Southeast Asia. Such steps are or course no substitute for a genuine bargain between China and Japan to arrive at some shared vision for regional order. Yet reminding the two countries of their responsibility to ensure regional stability and play a constructive role in regional diplomacy can have a salutary effect.


Antoine Roth is assistant professor at the Faculty of Law and Politics of Tohoku University, working on Sino-Japanese relations, China's foreign relations, and East Asian international politics. He holds a PhD in International Politics from the University of Tokyo and an MA in Asian Studies from the George Washington University.

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