The New Cold War: China vs Japan


Lately, it seems that Japanese officials can’t sneeze without incurring the wrath of the Chinese — and vice versa. So it’s no surprise that even conciliatory statements from Shinzo Abe have been soundly rebuffed. On Thursday, Abe wrote a message, published in local Chinese-language papers, conveying greetings for the lunar new year. According to Reuters’ translation of the Japanese-language version, Abe insisted that Japan has “taken the path of peace” since World War II, and “nothing has been changed in the policy of continuing to uphold this position.”

Friday, Abe further extended the olive branch. According to Channel NewsAsia, Abe told a parliamentary session that “Japan and China are inseparable.” He also expressed his desire for the two countries to restart diplomatic meetings. “Instead of refusing to hold dialogue unless issues become resolved, we should hold talks because we have issues,” Abe said.

China flatly rejected these overtures. Responding to earlier requests for a bilateral dialogue, Qin Gang responded with bitter sarcasm: “Such kind of dialogue will be of no effect. Chinese leaders are very busy. Let them spend more time on things useful and effective.” China has repeatedly expressed its position that no diplomatic meetings between China and Japan can be held until Shinzo Abe proves his sincerity. During Friday’s press conference, Qin Gang laid down a specific path for restarting dialogue: Abe should declare that “I will pull back from the precipice, immediately admit and correct mistakes and make no more visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.”

As I wrote earlier, at this point it seems impossible that anything Abe will do will satisfy Chinese leaders (the things he could do, like apologizing for his visit to Yasukuni and/or Japan’s imperialistic past, are incredibly unlikely). To Chinese officials, Abe is “self-contradictory,” as an editorial in China Daily put it. Unless Abe apologizes for and refrains from repeating actions that upset China (from visiting Yasukuni to building up Japan’s military), China will dismiss as insincere his rhetoric about dialogue and peace. Meanwhile, from the Japanese perspective, were Abe to devote the rest of his administration to proving his friendship to China, it would have obvious negative repercussions for Japanese interests.

So we have two countries, each building up their militaries while insisting they must do so to counter the threat of their regional rival. Added to this, a deep distrust of each other’s different political systems coupled with a history of animosity makes the two nations deeply suspicious of each other. Each country insists it loves peace, and uses scare tactics to try to paint its opponent as a hawkish boogeyman. Sound familiar to anyone else?

Ever since the Cold War ended, strategists have been warning leaders to drop the “Cold War mentality.” But it apparently hasn’t worked, because that is exactly what we have right now between China and Japan. The two countries identify so strongly as rivals that it’s impossible for either country to do or say anything without triggering a response from its counterpart. The tensions pop up in the most unexpected places – during Abe’s Africa tour, during a global economic summit in Switzerland.

Even the strong economic ties between China and Japan haven’t helped forestall tensions. In fact, it’s the other way around – tensions are eroding the economic relationship. The Telegraph recently reported that, according to a poll, 60 percent of Chinese business leaders are unwilling to work with Japanese firms. In 2012, China-Japan tensions even erupted into outright calls to boycott Japanese products, with rioters targeting Japanese businesses and restaurants. While Japan’s business view of China is less affected (according to The Telegraph, 80 percent of Japanese are willing to continue trade with China and South Korea), economic interests are shifting to other regions, notably Southeast Asia. Economic ties are likely to continue worsening. It’s certainly hard to see the next round of negotiations on a trilateral China-Japan-South Korea free-trade agreement going off as planned in February 2014.

As with the Cold War, part of the problem is that both China and Japan willfully read each other’s every move as a challenge or threat. For all the distrust between China and the United States, the problem hasn’t reached this level (yet). The U.S. has too many potential enemies (Russia, Iran, North Korea) and too many global interests for China to realistically interpret every diplomatic or strategic maneuver as somehow anti-China (although certainly some hawks within China do try). Japan, with its more limited global presence and strategic interests, is a different story. Meanwhile, as China is currently limiting its military build-up and strategic goals to the near seas, it’s easy for Tokyo interpret each move (for example, a new air defense identification zone) as directly aimed at Japan.

My colleague Zachary wrote Friday that one byproduct of the United States’ decline could be the emergence of regional hegemons. We might be seeing the beginning of this process now, with China and Japan in a Cold War-style battle, not for global power but for regional dominance. The territorial dispute highlights this by increasing the possibility of military conflict, but even if the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands were to sink into the ocean tomorrow (one possible benefit of global warming) the tensions would remain. It’s a regional Cold War, currently being fought with words but with an arms race looming on the horizon. And, like the Cold War, tensions are unlikely to end until one country claims victory.

February 28, 2014 at 05:17

You judge a person by what he did, not what he said. Same for judging a politician. If this simple rule is not followed, it is really hard for a columnist to look thing from a fair point of view.

February 28, 2014 at 04:37

From most of your comments, It is clearer that there is no forever friends and forever enemies. Pearl harbor attacks have passed too long. That is why..

February 6, 2014 at 02:34

Japan vs china, asian will support japan we dont like china,

April 2, 2014 at 19:32

same as North Korea??

Brett Champion
February 2, 2014 at 03:52

This is the danger in dealing with powerful, authoritarian states: their leaders have to find pretexts to legitimize their rule. While China’s leaders know that Japan simply isn’t a threat to China in the least in either fact or intention, they use the Japanese government’s sensible steps at increasing their ability to protect the country from the increasing regional aggressiveness displayed by China as a pretext for why they can’t possibly respect the human rights of their own people and have a real transition to democracy.

B. Smith
January 29, 2014 at 14:39

Japan with a fertility rate of 1.4 and not allowing any meaningful immigration, will be doomed to a declining economy and inability to maintain social programs. The aging population will mean less working Japanese to support the retired. You can deduce the rest.

January 30, 2014 at 13:38

none sense… u must project with the topics itself not your guise..

thrung suc phang
January 28, 2014 at 13:47

ta certain tdog here seems and smikes like a cummy….I don’t even think why they always insist that china is a great and humble country? how could this china respect the law of UN (UNCLOS) as they are one of the signatories and why they can’t even face the pilippines in tribunal?haaaaaaaa?????? why they insist their fake maps and history that no one in this world accept that claim…!!!!! My goodness this mongoloid china!!!if u want peace and legal settlement of this spratly claim u have to abide the UNCLOS which is the most accepted system of the entire nation….

January 28, 2014 at 09:50

China had always been the threat to asian peace and stability throughout ages. Before the Industrialization of Japan, China was a big bully in the region. The empire with the largest population on Earth, Taoism, military might and technological advancement. China forced many nations below South East Asia to pay tribute fees everyear. Japan and Korea also had to do the same, China also provoked many wars in the region even escalating into Muslim states and India.
The mass murder conducted by the Mongols and Japanese in history justified the mean. China can’t just sit on its throne and forcing people around its region to follow its Chinese hegemony. If China should learn how to peacefully live with other people, Ancient China should have learned Roman governing called democracy to appease people rather than suppressing people. People always win!

As for Japan, I think Japan need to chill out for a moment. Japan needed to make alliance between all asian nations surrounding China, from India to South Korea. Just don’t go arms race, Okay? Just boycotting Chinese goods.

February 15, 2014 at 06:31

dude, learn your his lesson.

those tiny countries paid china sot to keep a good relationship and so won;t have to fought war against china. not the other way around.

January 28, 2014 at 02:49

China is burdened with a massive inferiority complex overlaid with a massive superiority complex.

ngu yen thrung
January 27, 2014 at 18:35

the new title for this is “China as a cannibal nation” in hanoi, we always hate chinese mongol

January 27, 2014 at 12:04

The author, Shannon, don’t understand what means to Chinese and Korean on the revival or prime minister’s worship of war criminals of WWII. It’s NOT a problem about regional influence.

Maybe only one’s family members had been killed by Japanese for their honor, one will understand what is evil truly.

Steel Man
January 26, 2014 at 17:59

Japan acts as the proxy for the US in Asia. Its time that Japan recognize its own limitations and place in Asia. It just cannot compete in the long run with China. The US cannot be completely relied on as US and Japan national interests ultimately will not always be the same.

January 26, 2014 at 15:03

Every time I see such sensational headlines like this , I always wonder “where has US gone?”, in which means of course about their presence in ASIA and also about their lack of recognition that U.S is the true target of P.R.C.

Iron head
January 26, 2014 at 13:47

It is clear that Japan invaded pearl harbour and alaska in ww2. It always making lots of trouble through history, no doubt, Japan is a evil country, and it never change.

January 26, 2014 at 13:05

china and japan are NOT in the same league. …it’s almost meaningless to conceptualize a “war” between two players when they in different weight class; japan is NOT getting up to the fighting weight in the foreseeable future. …when abenomic fails, japan will wake up to the reality and this scenario will take too long to realize, in my view.

January 26, 2014 at 10:50

To all Japanese, your prime minister, the worship for war criminals, who killed millions of innocent people with brutality, is totally wrong!

It’s nothing about world order, calm down, plz.

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