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Beyond Confidence Building: Japan-China Security Relations in the Era of Power Shift

Tags: Defense Exchange , Crisis Management , China-Japan-US Relations , Nontraditional Security Threats , Territorial Dispute

Masuda, Masayuki

November 06, 2012

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Managing Risks: “Crisis Management” Mechanism

Discussions on Japan-China’s security relations, “defense exchange” in particular, tend to start from the context of a political relationship between the two countries. In other words, these discussions position the developments and potential for cooperation in the fields of security and defense exchange as an extension of the political relationship between China and Japan, while China feels that improving and developing the political relationship between the two nations is a prerequisite for cooperation and exchange between defense authorities. These discussions have also indicated that one reason why defense exchange between Japan and China has been limited in nature is the lack of “strategic mutual trust” at the national level. Concerns toward the trends of both countries’ militaries and national security policies as well as the issue of differing views of history are evidence that strategic mutual trust is lacking. If strategic mutual trust is lacking between China and Japan, then the unambiguous purpose of China’s military diplomacy toward Japan would be the building of a relationship of trust politically.

However, given the modernization of China’s military power, especially the expansion in areas of operations of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Navy, as well as the increase in China’s use of fourth-generation fighters, the possibility cannot be denied that an accidental conflict could occur between the PLA and the Japan Self Defense Forces (SDF) either on the sea or in the air. In April 2010, Japan’s Maritime SDF (MSDF) escort vessel Suzunami, while on alert in the East China Sea, and MSDF escort ship Asayuki, while at sea south of Okinawa, were buzzed by a PLAN carrier-based helicopter that flew at a horizontal distance as close as 90 meters. After the incidents, Japan lodged a protest with the government of China that both represented dangerous actions. In addition, China’s air activities in the East China Sea have also been increasing in number in recent years; accordingly, the number of scrambles launched by Japan’s Air SDF fighters against China reached 96 in FY 2010.[1] Based on this situation, it has come to the point where Japan-China defense exchange now requires a crisis management function. The Japan-China Joint Press Statement released during Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan in April 2007 specified that one field of cooperation both Japan and China aspire to is to “establish a communication mechanism between the two defense authorities” in order to “prevent the occurrence of unforeseen circumstances at sea.” Furthermore, at the China-Japan defense ministers meeting held at the end of August 2007, an agreement was reached to establish a Joint Working Group to set up a communication mechanism between the defense authorities of each nation. In April 2008, the first meeting of the Joint Working Group was held in Beijing, and then the second meeting was held in Tokyo in 2010, in which discussions were held on the communication mechanism at sea and technical problems and related matters.

senkakuarticle.jpgWhat is required, from the perspective of crisis management, is safety standards shared among units and mutual communication mechanisms that enable more direct contact with units. However, the meaning of mechanisms for communication with Japan, as emphasized by China, is the promotion of mutual trust. China has not placed so much emphasis on the purpose of crisis management. In October 2010, following the Senkaku incident, Japan’s Minister of Defense Yoshimi Kitazawa and China’s Minister of National Defense Liang Guanglie held talks in Hanoi, Vietnam, where both agreed on the need to promptly establish a mechanism for maritime communication between the two countries’ defense authorities. The major media in China, however, did not report on the maritime communication mechanism but only reported Minister of National Defense Liang’s statement about continuing to strengthen mutual trust between the two countries. In addition, China seems to be reluctant to use the term of “crisis management” in Sino-Japanese security relations. According to a press release by the Japanese government, Foreign Minister Koichiro Genba proposed the establishment of a maritime “crisis management” mechanism in his meeting with his Chinese counterpart in November 2011.[2] In December Japan’s Prime Minister Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao agreed to create a new bilateral mechanism to discuss maritime security.[3] However, the official media in China, such as the People’s Daily and the PLA Daily, did not report on these proposals and agreements, which suggests China's reluctant attitude toward a “crisis management” mechanism.

It will not be a simple task to move forward with establishing a crisis management mechanism—not between the defense authorities and but among relevant government agencies, especially on the Chinese side in terms of domestic coordination. First, coordination is required within the PLA command system. According to media reports, a possible counterparty of the communication or crisis management mechanism for the Chinese side is the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defense. However, the Foreign Affairs Office acts as a window for external negotiations, and as such no direct relationship of command authority exists with the PLA units. Consequently, in circumstances where a nimble response is demanded to avert a crisis, the effectiveness of a mechanism that uses an external office, such as the Foreign Affairs Office, will be limited greatly in an actual crisis. Another aspect of coordination is the one among relevant government agencies. The communication mechanism to be set up between China and Japan has as its purpose to “prevent unforeseen occurrences at sea,” but Chinese maritime agencies include not only the PLA Navy but also the China Maritime Surveillance Force (CMS) under the State Oceanic Administration (SOA), Maritime Safety Administration (MSA), the Fisheries Law Enforcement Command (FLEC) of the Ministry of Agriculture, and so on. As a prerequisite to establishing a communication mechanism with Japan, China will need to coordinate with each of these governmental agencies. However China’s maritime law enforcement agencies are competing to try to expand their respective budgets and authority. For example, the SOA is an active player in pushing the idea of making a “basic ocean law.” In the process of making a basic law and formulating a maritime strategy, the aim of the SOA is to strengthen its interagency policy coordination function among maritime agencies, but the director of the SOA is at the vice minister level, making it difficult to play a policy coordination role. In addition, the CMS operates within China’s territorial waters and the EEZ, and its major missions include environmental protection, scientific research, and enforcement of EEZ rights and interests; however, the CMS is not authorized to exercise police power at sea. The body that does have police power at sea is the Maritime Police of the Border Control Department (BCD), but it does not always enforce laws in a wide sea area. With growing maritime law enforcement activities in sea areas including EEZ, the CMS claims the necessity of being able to exercise police power. On the other hand, the Maritime Police also intends to increase its authority and capabilities, and the FLEC and MSA are also trying to develop their capabilities by building large vessels. Partly as a result of this inter-agency rivalry, more assertive “rights defense” activities have been observed, which, in turn, is leading to China’s more assertive posture in overall terms.

Increasing Opportunities: Non-Traditional Security

Taking as a premise for the medium to long term that the rise of China will bring about a power shift, such trends must lead to the creation of a stable international order. From this perspective, the Japan-China security relationship will be required to have an “integrating” function that expands opportunities for cooperation with China bilaterally and eventually multilaterally to include the United States. In January 2012, Japanese Foreign Minister Genba expressed his willingness at the Diet to launch a trilateral strategic dialogue between Japan, the United States, and China, saying, “Strategic talks and collaboration between the three countries are more important than ever for peace and stability in the region.”[4] There is a strong tendency toward disputation in the Japan-China security relationship, and especially the relationship between the authorities concerned with national defense, as an extension of the Japan-China political relationship. It may be, therefore, that any advances in defense exchange or security cooperation should be premised on the building of political relationships of mutual trust as an essential precondition.

The Japanese government has been aiming to build relationships between defense and security authorities that are not dominated by the political relationship. The development of relationships among the defense authorities was positioned as one key portion of the process of building a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests following the visit to China by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in October 2006. The joint press release on the occasion of Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to Japan in April 2007 also stated that “Both countries will strengthen dialogue and exchange in the area of defense and make utmost efforts for the stability of the region together” as part of the basic content of the mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests. In the light of this agreement, China’s Minister of Defense Cao Gangchuan visited Japan at the end of August that year, and the two countries confirmed between them that “the development of Japan-China defense exchanges should be promoted at a variety of levels and in various fields.” From November to December of that same year, the destroyer Shenzhen of the PLAN South Sea Fleet made a port call in Tokyo. In June 2008 the escort ship Sazanami became the first vessel of Japan’s MSDF to make a visit to China (Zhanjiang). Visits back and forth by young leaders at the junior officer level of the Self-Defense Forces and the PLA were also made in 2008 and 2009. No fundamental change appears to have taken place, however, in the standpoint of the China side, which places the state of the political relationship as a precondition for progress in the relationship between defense authorities. Rather, in the event that political relations between Japan and China deteriorate, China considers defense exchange with Japan to be a means of expressing its own political intentions. In October 2010 the Chinese government notified Japan that the plan for a port visit to Qingdao by a MSDF training squadron would be postponed because of the Senkaku incident. Furthermore, the China side also demanded that the Japanese side postpone the defense exchange project for field-grade officers, which was to be implemented by the Sasakawa Peace Foundation, a private-sector organization.

Both countries should go back to the joint press statement issued during Chinese President Hu Jintao’s visit to Japan in May 2008 on “Strengthening Exchange and Cooperation” listing 70 items relating to exchange and cooperation projects. Seven of those items had to do with relations between the countries’ defense authorities. The joint press statement issued in November 1998 during the visit to Japan by Jiang Zemin raised a total of 33 points on cooperation, but the only point relating to defense authorities was a general statement about continuing implementation of security dialogue and defense exchange. By comparison with this agreement, both sides could be viewed as having become somewhat more specific in its intentions to strengthen exchange and cooperation between defense authorities. It will be necessary to urge the China side to continue implementing agreements relating to exchange and cooperation in the defense and security fields and to render them in more specific terms.

In addition to the advancement of security cooperation among alliance partners in the Asia-Pacific region, there has been progress in bilateral and multilateral functional cooperation addressing security issues, as though to make up for the slow development of an Asia-Pacific regional order extending regionwide. The means devised to interrelate actual developments of this kind with the Japan-China security relationship are also indispensable from the perspective of the connection with integration. At this time, however, there is virtually no Japan-China cooperation in the nontraditional security field that has taken specific material form. Note particularly, as described above, that China’s defense authorities announced to the Japan side that the scheduled Japan-China defense exchanges were to be postponed by reason of the deteriorated political relationship resulting from the September 2010 Senkaku incident. These and other such actions illustrate how China’s response was to give priority to the political relationship over the materialization of specific defense exchanges. Moreover, the actual substance of cooperation in the nontraditional security field still remains on a bilateral Japan-China base. International PKOs, counter-piracy activities, coping with natural disasters, and other such matters are issues that directly impact on the whole of the international community, and they are not policy issues to be made into political problems. Furthermore, collaborative relations with China in fields of this kind can contribute to the stability and maintenance of regional and global systems, and it is therefore a policy issue that is tied to integration.


[1] http://www.mod.go.jp/jso/Press/press2011/press_pdf/p20110428_02.pdf

[2] http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/kaidan/g_gemba/china1111/meeting2.html

[3] http://www.mofa.go.jp/mofaj/kaidan/s_noda/china_1112/pdfs/jc40_factseet.pdf

[4] “Genba Calls for Japan-U.S.-China Strategic Dialogue,” Jiji English News Service, January 24, 2012.

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