Japan and China have retreated from the recent peak in security tension that was embodied by their heated exchange at the Shangri-La Dialogue and the near collision of their military aircraft over the East China Sea in the last few weeks. However, this week China has resumed its public attempts to draw attention to Japan’s military and colonial past, by bringing the issue of the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and “comfort women” before the U.N. Specifically, China is applying to have 11 documents that give a first-hand account of the events archived with the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
China started the application process in March this year, and on Tuesday Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying “confirmed that China had applied to UNESCO to list documents relating to the massacre and Japan’s wartime sex slaves, so-called ‘comfort women’, on the Memory of the World Register,” according to Xinhua. The South China Morning Post wrote that the move was in response to the Japanese city of Minamikyushu’s decision to apply for UNESCO status for the final letters of kamakazi pilots who had trained there. South Korea also stated on Tuesday that it was considering a UNESCO application similar to China’s, with its foreign ministry spokesman Noh Kwang Il stating “As far as I know, there is an opinion within the government to seek the listing and the issue is being considered,” and that his government “is aware of the Chinese move.”
Japan was swift to respond on Wednesday, with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga stating at a news conference that Beijing was “politically exploiting” sensitive historical issues “when Japan and China need to make efforts to improve the bilateral relationship.” He said the issue was “extremely regrettable,” and that his government had filed a diplomatic protest with Beijing requesting the application be withdrawn. According to the Japan Times, Suga also claimed UNESCO status for the documents would be inappropriate because the number of victims killed during the massacre is still disputed by some historians. China claims that the Japanese Imperial Army murdered around 300,000 people, while estimates by Japanese historians range anywhere from 40,000 to 200,000.
In response to Japan’s request, spokeswoman Hua called the protest “unreasonable,” and said the application would proceed. She said “The aim of China’s application is to firmly bear history in mind and cherish peace, respect human dignity and prevent behaviors against humanity, human rights and human beings from happening again,” according to a separate Xinhua article.
While rhetoric between the two concerning Chinese encroachment in the South China Sea, or Japanese attempts to normalize its military posture, have toned down recently, the East China Sea saw another extremely close flyby between the two country’s military aircraft on Wednesday. The Japanese Ministry of Defense said that Chinese Su-27 fighters twice flew within 30 meters of Japanese propeller-driven reconnaissance aircraft. The ministry said the Chinese aircraft flew close enough for the Japanese pilots to photograph what appeared to be white missiles fixed to the fighters. This is the first near collision since May 24, when China and Russia were conducting joint naval drills in the East China Sea. Japanese Defense Minister Itsunori Onodera said his government has “lodged a stern protest to the Chinese side, via diplomatic channels.”
This week’s events show the almost rotating nature of disputes between China and Japan. Once issues like those argued over at the Shangri-La Dialogue are allowed to settle, historical disputes or military confrontations routinely come back to the surface. The two countries also frequently antagonize each other when their leaders take part in large international forums, like Abe’s G7 appearance last week, or when their business delegations seek to sign new deals in regions like Sub-Saharan Africa. The growing nature of both countries’ security interests in the region makes their ability to manage and mediate bilateral conflict paramount, yet neither country appears willing or able to do so in a comprehensive manner.
There are of course variables that could mitigate conflict. A “hard landing” of China’s economy, or domestic security issues along ethnic or economic class lines, could cause China to turn inward and have less bandwidth for regional territorial disputes. Likewise, Japan’s demographic problems will continue to plague any economic recovery, which has been out of reach for almost a generation, and in the medium term could force the government to shift funds away from the military as it is forced to confront very serious social and economic restructuring issues.
However, a continuation of the status quo suggests incidents like Wednesday’s near mid-air collision will increase in frequency, with the risk of wider conflict rising as well. With both countries increasing their military assets and given the tempo of deployment and engagement in the East China Sea, the margin of error is diminishing quickly. Visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (which houses the remains of Japanese Class-A war criminals) and routine Chinese attempts to shame Japan over the Nanjing Massacre exacerbate the larger issue of rising military tension in the East China Sea. While outright military conflict is still remote, neither side appears to be taking steps to mitigate the real prospect of conflict beyond the short-term.