How to Contain Japan-China Tensions
Image Credit: Flickr poter.simon

How to Contain Japan-China Tensions


A recent Economist magazine cover portrays Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe clad in superhero costume, flying through the air flanked by fighter jets under the banner, “Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No… It’s Japan!” This caricature represents a growing sense that Japan has turned a corner toward a more assertive foreign and defense policy.

Despite Abe’s intentions, Tokyo is unlikely to adopt a radically expanded defense posture aimed at containing Beijing in coming years. Rather, a wide range of domestic and external factors will likely place constraints on Japanese defense spending and capabilities and lead Tokyo to continue an overall policy of cooperative engagement with Beijing.

However, there is growing support in Japan for dealing firmly with China’s expanding military capabilities and ambitions, especially in light of the most recent crisis over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. Equally important, Abe and his highly conservative supporters are bent on revising Japan’s constitution and affirming an interpretation of modern Japanese history, moves that are sure to provoke other Asian nations greatly, especially China and South Korea. While it is questionable whether these efforts will succeed, at the very least, the cooperative elements of Tokyo’s stance toward Beijing are likely to be combined with an increasingly hard hedge.

At the same time, although Beijing is unlikely to engage in future efforts at territorial expansion, it is also unlikely to back down from its more assertive stance on current territorial disputes. And it is almost certain to increase its military and paramilitary capabilities and presence near Japan from their currently modest but growing levels. Even if economic growth rates slow, China will be able to sustain significant annual defense spending increases that will enable its military power in the Asia-Pacific region, including areas near Japan, to grow steadily over the coming decades.

Taken together, these trends suggest that Tokyo and Beijing are likely to find themselves engaged in a growing security competition in coming years that could prove destabilizing to the region and deleterious to the interests of both countries. To mitigate this security competition, policymakers in both countries need to prioritize skillful diplomacy and implement stable mutual security reassurances.

In the short term, this should involve efforts to establish rules of engagement, informal understandings, communication channels, and other mechanisms that will facilitate the prevention and management of crises, particularly those that could arise as the result of incidents at air and sea.

In the longer term, the two sides – necessarily through a simultaneous conversation with the United States – will need to grapple with the question of what type of deployment pattern and distribution of military power in the Western Pacific they can accept.

These are some of the conclusions we and our co-authors reach in a recent Carnegie Endowment report, China’s Military and the U.S.-Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment (though the views expressed in this article do not necessarily reflect those of the other report authors).

The Outlook for Japan

Despite the recent ascendancy in Japan of those who advocate a move toward military normalization, it is unlikely that Tokyo will make a major breakthrough toward becoming a fully normal military power by 2030. Overall, numerous factors suggest that Japan’s defense response to China is likely to be restrained. Various domestic influences, including constitutional constraints, normative values, political and bureaucratic factors, and budgetary limitations, are likely to limit growth in Japanese military missions and capabilities. Moreover, Japan’s extensive economic interests vis-à-vis China are likely to act as stabilizing ballast for the relationship. Similarly, U.S. interests in encouraging a cooperative Sino-Japanese relationship will continue, as will, in all probability, U.S. preferences against full-fledged Japanese normalization.


[...] will hopefully lose political priority. Experts of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace predict that Sino-Japanese relations are likely to move in the direction of “cooperative engagement with [...]

July 13, 2013 at 03:27

You should know that it is Japan, not China, that makes up the territorial issues in collusion with USA. China protested and didn't agree to the legality of the unilateral transfer of administration right of the islands to Japan by USA. Japan unilaterally bought the islands.  These actions violate international rule of law.

July 4, 2013 at 04:55

@Little Helmsman:  If China are not worried about a few speck of islands, so why should Japan and USA? Japan and USA started the island problems, showing they have small mentality, and intend to bully China into submission with their superior military power. That is why Asian countries reject the bullish interference by Japan and USA in South Asia affairs when they see the destructions created when USA interferes in the Middle East.

Little Helmsman
July 1, 2013 at 05:34

I wonder why Chinese are so worried about a few speck of islands while ignoring the real loss of landmass like over 600,000 sq km of upper Manchuria loss to the Russians?  The landmass is actually attached to and is connected to Chinese mainland while the teeny, weeny islands are on the periphery of China.  Why the disconnect Chinese nationalists?  Chinese sense of pride and self worth is out of wack here!  Threatening war over a few speck of islands while ignoring over 600,000 sq km that China actually loss?  How many sq km does the Senkakus have compare to 600,000 sq km of upper Manchuria?  

I think it comes down to the small mind mentality of the Chinese leadership.  Be aggressive towards small countries and small powers with limited capabilities while not risking confrontation with big powers with actual capabilities.  Such a mentality is an indication of a bully boy mentality as we all know on the playgrounds of childhood.  I guess some people grow up and become adults and behave like adults while some people grow up but stay trapped in a child like mind.  

I think this one of the reasons why small Asian countries now see China for what it really is, a very large country with a very tiny mentality.     

Yoshimichi Moriyama
June 30, 2013 at 11:07

I did not suggest that China should concentrate on its internal problems.  I meant that the world, whether we are Chinese, Indian, American or whatever, had a lot of problems and that if China did not make up the territorial issue at least Japan would have more energy and mind for part of those problems of the world.

SC Lai
June 29, 2013 at 22:16

@ Yoshimichi M,
Are you suggsting that China should concentrate on improving the living standard of her citizens and pretend nothing happens while Japan is rachating up the Diaoyu tension first by “Nationalisation of Senkaku”, then beef up its military and instigating and providing weapons/hardwares to Vietnam and Phillipines to gang fight with China? And close 1 eye to your rightists movement like changing your pacifist constitution to that of a Normal Nation such as abolishing Art no.9 so that you can arm to teeth and whack China once more? As for Diaoyu, China doesn’t need to “pull it to China on robe” as it’s already so close to Chinese Taiwan.

June 29, 2013 at 21:51

The Chinese Government early warned the Japanese government against the buying of the islands. The very act of buying indicates that Japan has the sovereignty of the islands whereas the sovereignty of the island is in dispute and will certainly deteriorate and aggravate the relation between China and Japan. The Japanese Governmen could have denied and declared void and null such transaction and any actions on the island  on the ground that the island is in dispute.  By not doing so indicates that the Japanese Government doesn’t acknowledge the dispute status which is acknowledged by those Japanese who were involved early in the establishment of China Japan relation.

Yoshimichi Moriyama
June 29, 2013 at 11:14

@thmak, the Japanese government bought the isles, before Abe became Prime Minister, from Japanese owners. The purpose was to prevent further deterioration of Sino-Japanese relaltions, not to aggravate them; the Tokyo municipal government was about to buy the isles and had expressed its intention, after the purchase, of constructing buildings such as a lighthouse and wathmen's house, etc.  The Japanese government feared it would get Beijing angry and abruptly and secretly cut in, offering far better price.  The owners were in heavy debts and swallowed the bait, hook, line and sinker. They even swallowed the rod.

The United States government and South East Asian countries have long been impatient for Japan to stregthen its defence efforts in conjunction with them.

The Sino-Japanese relationship has never been good since the beginning of the modern era.  It has almost always been a one-sided, unrequited love of Japan throughout history, though I know this is hard to believe for most people on account of Japan's recent past. Read my comments, if interested, to Project-Syndicate. org/Ian Buruma/East Asia's Nationalist Fantasy Islands and Gareth Evans/Japan and the Politics of Guilt.

I found Prof. Jennifer Lind's "Japan, the Never Normal" interesting (

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