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Japan’s China Conundrum Amidst The Ukraine Crisis – Analysis

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By Amlan Dutta

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“Hot Economics, Cold Politics”, is how Japan–China relations are often explained. Notwithstanding the world’s (read the West’s) fixation with the Ukraine crisis, aggressive posturing and unilateral measures undertaken by China in the Indo-Pacific have somewhat put the focus back on this region. Both Japan and China have a long-standing dispute regarding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, with both sides claiming these islands to be under their jurisdiction.

Currently, under Japanese control, Japan says that the islands are an inherent part of Japanese territory as per international law. Japanese fishermen have unhindered fishing rights in the vicinity of the islands whilst Chinese ships regularly patrol the area. But China has increased its presence and activities near the islands in recent times. A report in The Japan Times says that on 15 January, four Chinese Coast Guard ships intruded into Japanese waters near the Senkaku islands, the first of this year. This was followed by another incident in April when certain Chinese Coast Guard ships with cannons reportedly threatened and chased away Japanese fishermen near the islands, as per a CNN report.

On 24 May, just about when the leaders of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia were taking part in the QUAD summit in Tokyo, a grouping which many attributes as meant to deter China, six strategic bombers of China and Russia flew over the Sea of Japan in a show of strength. Both Russia and China are heavily critical of the QUAD grouping, with the latter labelling it as “Asian NATO”. Japanese Foreign Minister Nobuo Kishi, in a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe at the recently concluded Shangri-La Dialogue, expressed his “grave concern” at the incident, calling it a “provocative show of force intended to intimidate Japan”. He urged the Chinese side to act responsibly given the fact that China is a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Kishi also told Wei that China should show “strong restraint” and not attempt to alter the status quo by force in the regional security architecture, in an oblique reference to Chinese incursions in the Senkaku islands. Incidentally, this was the first in-person meeting between the defence ministers of the two sides since 2019.

But perhaps the most important flashpoint in the Indo-Pacific involving Japan and China at present is the issue of Taiwan, especially now, given the backdrop of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, delivering the keynote address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, dwelled on the implications of Russia’s actions on global security. He called the security environment around Japan “increasingly severe” and warned the world that “Ukraine today may be East Asia tomorrow”. US President Joe Biden’s statement in May that the US was committed to defending Taiwan in case China attempted to take it over by force had stirred the hornet’s nest. China warned the US not to meddle in the Taiwan issue and threatened with “dire consequences” saying that Beijing “will not hesitate to fight” should Taiwan seek independence. Any potential conflict between the US and China over Taiwan will automatically drag Japan into it given the fact that it is a key US ally in the region and also because of Tokyo’s strong linkages with Taipei.

Officially, Japan has never made any explicit commitment to defend Taiwan or even assist any US military operation to safeguard Taiwan in case of a conflict. An unusually blunt remark by Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister on July 5, 2021, indicating that “Japan would defend Taiwan if China attacks” shows Japan’s hardening posture over Taiwan. But recent geopolitical events would have caused a re-think on the part of Japan regarding its Taiwan strategy. Other than the Ukraine crisis, the US withdrawal from Afghanistan and its aftermath would not have inspired much confidence in the minds of Japanese policymakers. Also, Japan is constrained by its pacifist Constitution which bars it from significantly arming itself. Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had made it his agenda to seek the amendment of the Constitution so that Japan is able to cope with the geopolitical threats of the day. But pacifism remains deeply ingrained in Japanese society and any attempt to tinker with it will result in serious legal as well as political ramifications.

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So then, what are the options available for Japan to safeguard its strategic and security interests in the region vis-à-vis China? The obvious answer would be to strengthen the QUAD. But there is a major question related to the QUAD regarding what role it would play in case China attempts to overtake Taiwan. Neither India nor Australia would like to be drawn into a military conflict with China over the Taiwan issue. India is already grappling with Chinese incursions at the Himalayas which resulted in the bloody Galwan Valley episode, the first such incident in decades. Several rounds of military-level talks haven’t yielded many positive results and the relations between the two Asian giants have nosedived. Australia currently is more concerned with Chinese manoeuvres in the Pacific islands, where Beijing is using its full might to bring the smaller island nations under its ambit. Even the US, otherwise the biggest military power in the world, and Tokyo’s security guarantor, is currently heavily invested in the Ukraine conflict and would not like to be stretched. Also, post the Afghan withdrawal, for long an emotive issue for the American public, it would not be easy for any US President to explain to its people any new military confrontation.

As such, Japan must rely on its own self to face the current set of challenges posed by a belligerent China. Recently, Japan and the Philippines held their first “2+2” dialoguein Tokyo where the two sides pledged to step up their collective efforts in taming the dragon. The Philippines is the ninth country with whom Japan has such a format of talks. Additionally, Japan should also seek to strengthen the Japan–US–South Korea trilateral grouping. The recently held meeting between the defence ministers of the three sides in Singapore on the sidelines of the Shangri-La Dialogue took a veiled dig at China and the joint statement revealed that the three sides would resume their joint military drills which have been pending since 2017. Lastly, as envisaged by Shinzo Abe, Japan’s relations with India would be extremely crucial as both sides are victims of unilateral Chinese actions. Currently, Japan–India strategic relations are at their peak with PM Kishida and Indian Prime Minister Modi has already held two summit meetings this year.

Also, there have been murmurs that Japan could possibly explore options to increase its defence spending. PM Kishida, promising a new national security strategy for Japan by the end of 2022, said in his address at the Shangri-La Dialogue, “I am determined to fundamentally reinforce Japan’s defence capabilities within the next five years and secure substantial increase of Japan’s defence budget, needed to effect such reinforcement.” He also said that Japan would not rule out “counterstrike capabilities”, which many observers of Japan will agree is a hard stance by a Japanese PM Japan’s 2022 economic and fiscal policy guidelines, referred to as the Big-Boned policy outline, refers to the NATO commitment of meeting the standard of the defence budget of more than 2 percent of the GDP. Kuni Miyake, a special advisor to PM Kishida’s cabinet, says, “it is high time for Tokyo to meet the NATO standard of 2 percent whether we like it or not.”

It remains to be seen how much of PM Kishida’s words transform into concrete actions. Geopolitical tensions are only set to rise as China seems to be in no mood to climb down. If anything, Russia’s actions in Ukraine have only given it wings, not that it needed any in the first place. Japan’s actions aimed at countering China will have wider implications for the regional security architecture. The ball is in Japan’s court.

Observer Research Foundation

ORF was established on 5 September 1990 as a private, not for profit, ’think tank’ to influence public policy formulation. The Foundation brought together, for the first time, leading Indian economists and policymakers to present An Agenda for Economic Reforms in India. The idea was to help develop a consensus in favour of economic reforms.

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