Tokyo Report

Are Cooler Heads Prevailing in the East China Sea?

China and Japan appear motivated to find common ground after last weekend’s fireworks.

After regional tensions boiled over last weekend at the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, Japan and China have begun to make attempts to reduce the strain on an already overwrought relationship. These attempts have come from different sources in both large and small forums. While no official agreement to improve ties has emerged, there are signs that at least the Japanese leadership is interested in opening discourse between the two sides.

As The Diplomat noted earlier today, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe called on China at the G7 summit this week to agree to a summit meeting between the two, saying the door to dialogue is always open, and calling on China to help ensure regional stability. This is so far the most overt sign of reconciliation from either country and  the request to talk appears to have been made without reservation, which in itself is a noticeable change.

China and Japan also resumed talks (albeit informally) at the New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century in Nagasaki on Thursday. The Japanese side is led by Taizo Nishimuro, current president of Japan Post Holdings Co. and former president of Toshiba, while the Chinese is led by former state councilor Tang Jiaxuan. While Tang lost no opportunity to criticize Abe for his controversial visit to Yasukuni Shrine last December, both sides also opened the door to future dialogue. Nishimuro emphasized reducing mutual distrust, and that “communication is important, especially when there are problems… I expect China to open the door for dialogue as well,” the Japan News reported.

Aside from Tang’s comments saying “It is regrettable that there are fewer people in Japan taking China as an opportunity, but rather spreading noise of a ‘China threat’ and demonising China,” he  was perhaps even more conciliatory. He said both sides needed to “reaffirm their understanding of each other,” and that they had an “urgent need” to resolve their disputes. In terms of reducing tension, Tang’s most encouraging statement was that “adverse winds are blowing against bilateral relations but this difficulty is only temporary,” leaving observers to assume that China intends to encourage improved relations, although with no exact indication as to when.

Meanwhile, the first meeting of the China-Japan CEO Forum in three years was held this week in Tokyo. Both sides pledged to keep ties open despite the ongoing disputes between the two governments. According to the Japan Times, the chairman of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives Yasuchika Hasegawa said “we want to develop win-win relations not only between Japan and China, but also in the (region) by holding this kind of dialogue as much as possible.” The article also reported that former Japanese Ambassador to China Uichiro Niwa emphasized the need for both countries to hold a summit, while Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua said the political tensions “are not in line with the benefit of people of the two countries and expectations of the international community.”

These statements taken together come at a critical juncture for Japan and China. The Japan News reported Tuesday that the number of Japanese people living in China has fallen sharply from its high in 2012, when the current imbroglio started over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands. The article also notes that an increasing number of Japanese being sent to work in China are leaving their families at home in Japan, and that some companies are refraining from sending Japanese employees altogether, instead preferring to hire Chinese workers. Officials are blaming this on China’s worsening air pollution and the recent weakening of the yen, yet the current tensions are surely a factor also.

If they are to lower the heat in East Asia, China and Japan finding common ground for dialogue is a key first step. Disputes in the South China Sea, particularly between China and Vietnam, show no signs of abating. The Philippines is pressing its case against China in The Hague, which China has already said it will take no part in, despite The Hague saying on Tuesday China has until December 15 to submit evidence to challenge Manila’s claim. If the two main actors in the East China Sea could find a way to manager their disputes, it might offer some instruction on how to proceed in the South China Sea. But Beijing and Tokyo still have some distance to travel before even that modest goal is achieved.