The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Improving Sino-Japanese Security Relations: Dialogue, Crisis Management, and Policy Coordination

November 16, 2012

To suggest what China and Japan could do to stabilize and improve their security relations in the future, we need to look back at what has happened and where security fits in the overall Sino-Japanese relationship.

Retracing the Steps

The Sino-Japanese security relationship has gone through four stages since the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1972: non-issue from 1972 to the early 1990s, more open security concerns emerging in the early 1990s, serious security tensions for the past few years, and recent multilateralization of security tension. [1]

When I started working on the Sino-Japanese relationship just when the Cold War was ending, one feature that stood out at the time was that there was very little direct Sino-Japanese security relationship. One would be hard pressed to write anything meaningful about the topic. Improved Sino-Japanese relations had clear strategic implications in the Cold War environment. The United States and China moved first to improve bilateral relations with a strategic rationale to counter the Soviet Union. Japan and China managed to normalize diplomatic relations in that changed strategic environment, but the Sino-Japanese relationship followed its own logic and rhythm somewhat distinct from the US-China relationship and the US-Japan relationship. For one thing, Japan normalized diplomatic relations with China in 1972, almost seven years ahead of the United States. And Japan hesitated to sign the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1978 because they did not want to provoke Moscow openly. The Japan-US alliance shielded Japan from being involved explicitly in a regional or global geopolitical game. Put simply, security was a non-issue between Beijing and Tokyo, meaning virtually no security tension or cooperation between the countries.

The end of the Cold War removed the common strategic rationale against Moscow among the United States, China, and Japan but did not immediately cause security tensions between Beijing and Tokyo. Governments worldwide turned their attention to economic issues. The Bill Clinton administration focused on trade disputes with Japan in its first term, causing much tension in US-Japan relations. In the aftermath of the Tiananmen Incident, China was the target of Western sanctions. In that environment, the Sino-Japanese relationship became relatively stronger. But security concerns were creeping in, particularly over territorial disputes. The Taiwan Strait near crisis in the mid-1990s was a turning point. The US government sent two carrier groups to the area for deterrence. That confrontation has long-term implications for the Sino-Japanese security relationship. Facing a rising China, the United States had a stronger strategic reason to strengthen and expand its alliance with Japan. Conversely, the People’s Liberation Army has sought since the Taiwan Strait near crisis to acquire access-denial capabilities. We began to see the emergence of a US-China security dilemma. Japan has its own strategic interests when it comes to Taiwan, but there was still some room for strategic ambiguity between Beijing and Tokyo. The direct tension remained understated.

Sino-Japanese security tension has become open over the past few years, although uncertainties remain. More than previously, Japan is more willing to seek a stronger alliance with the United States facing a rising China. Since the September 2010 Chinese fishing boat collision incident, we also see a growing tendency for Sino-Japanese security tension to become multilateralized. It has always been the case that the United States is a party to Sino-Japanese security relations. But for the past two or three years, there is also much security discussion between Japan and other countries, such as Australia and India, reinforced by China’s greater assertiveness and the collision incident. Thus, in almost a reversal, while direct security interaction was at most an afterthought in Sino-Japanese relations when the two countries normalized diplomatic relations in 1972, we may have to start any discussion of the bilateral relationship by talking about security tension first forty years later.

What does past Sino-Japanese interaction tell us? It says that this relationship has its own logic, dynamic, and emotions. Important though the United States has been, the Chinese and Japanese have much ownership over their interaction and are largely responsible for the rise and fall of the bilateral relationship.

Security Tension and Overall Relations

Security has become dominant in people’s perception of the Sino-Japanese relationship, drastically differently from the early years of their diplomatic relations. As is well understood in both countries, opinion of each other has also worsened. But diplomatically, the two governments are making an effort to maintain stability. In particular, the year of 2012 should be reasonably calm for the sake of the 40-year anniversary of diplomatic normalization. The Chinese government apparently wants to avoid disputes to spoil the celebration. Less enthused about symbolic ceremonies, the Japanese government also has reasons not to rock the boat.

More significantly, China and Japan have a much richer relationship now than before. There is now an extensive economic relationship and people-to-people exchange. In particular, with more relaxed immigration rules, waves of Chinese tourists are coming to Japan, a development the Japanese encourage. We know that such economic and cultural exchange have not exercised as much a positive impact on the bilateral relationship as their proponents have hoped for. Indeed, closer economic and cultural ties have also led to frictions at times. Familiarity sometimes leads to contempt. However, if we adopt a historical perspective, closer economic and cultural ties should have a positive impact on the bilateral relationship at some point and such a positive impact should be understood as part of the globalizing process rather than just for this bilateral relationship.

Sino-Japanese relations have become increasingly multilateralized. The relationship between these two great powers has always had a large impact on Asia and the world, but the multilateralization has become more explicit and attracted more attention in recent years. Conversely, international relations affect what is going on between Beijing and Tokyo. In particular, the Obama administration’s high profile “pivot” to Asia has affected the international environment in Asia, a development welcomed by Tokyo but resented by Beijing. It makes strategic sense for the United States to focus on the Asia-Pacific, where economic growth has been and where great power rivalries pose serious security concerns. At the same time, the United States is facing budgetary pressures, which raise questions about its long-term security commitments. But the US military is still stronger than other great powers even with a smaller budget, which is actually an adjustment for the sharp increase in military spending since 9/11.

The US pivot has much to do with China’s rise. Indeed, a rising China has become more assertive and come into tension with a number of Southeast Asian countries and India as well as with Japan. Thus, for Japan, security concerns about China have risen in relative importance. For China, it also feels less secure about its international environment. Japan has become a particular concern for Beijing. While China has tensions with some other Asian countries, there is room for change in either a positive or negative direction. By contrast, the Sino-Japanese security relationship will not improve any time soon, and all that people can hope for is stability.


While we need to be realistic and recognize the security dynamic in Asia, we should also not forget that East Asia is still growing, currently doing relatively better than North America and Europe. This does not negate the importance of security relations underpinning regional prosperity. But it does show that the region has common interests and may look to the future with some optimism. Again, we need to adopt a historical perspective.

The Next Step

The structural reasons for Sino-Japanese security tension are real and significant. China’s rise affects the distribution of power in the Asia-Pacific. China itself has become more assertive in the past few years due to its greater confidence. Most other countries are becoming concerned and are now making hedging or balancing moves. China’s non-democratic regime in a democratizing Asia has also contributed to its tension with some countries. All this is true. But security tensions involving China is not predetermined. If one wishes for a calmer relationship there is much the two sides can do. I think that the two countries should seek a more stable relationship, which is in the interest of the two great peoples and indeed in the interest of everyone else in the region and the world.

(1) Avoiding mismanagement of disputes would help. It is difficult for any government to manage disputes in a difficult transitional period. But observers can readily see mismanagement of crises by both sides in the past few years, particularly the September 2010 Chinese fishing boat collision incident. To better manage bilateral disputes, the two countries need to understand each other better. Dialogues, such as the Tokyo Foundation exchange, are highly valuable. People do not have to agree with each other, but they do need to understand each other as accurately as possible.

(2) Due to mistrust between the two countries, the Chinese and Japanese policy communities also know that there are limits to even useful dialogues. Soothing words have a clear limit. As a result, it makes sense for the two countries to watch each other’s actions carefully. But they should not read too much into every move. They should treat some actions as understandable even if they are not agreeable. It is also important to avoid using strong language when making official comments on the other side’s actions.

(3) Building up organizational and intellectual capacity to calibrate policy better in a multilateral environment. Diplomatic skills and good policy coordination on both sides contribute to stability. The reason is that there are common interests and at least common interests in avoiding military conflicts. As a result, one does not want to see missteps.

Since Sino-Japanese security relations have already become multilateralized, the two countries should expand that multilateralization from the troubled parts of the bilateral relationship to cooperative parts as well, particularly over economic and financial matters. As a case in point, the euro crisis poses a grave danger to China, Japan, and the international community. Multilateral security discussion would also help.

[1] My discussion of Sino-Japanese security relations draws from my previous work. See Ming Wan, Sino-Japanese Relations: Interaction, Logic, and Transformation (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2006); Ming Wan, “Japanese Strategic Thinking toward Taiwan,” in Gilbert Rozman, Kazuhiko Togo, and Joseph P. Ferguson, eds., Japanese Strategic Thought toward Asia (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2007), pp. 159-81; Ming Wan, “Japan-China Relations: Structure or Management?” in Alisa Gaunder, ed., Routledge Handbook of Japanese Politics (London: Routledge, 2011), pp. 339-49; and Ming Wan, “Sino-Japanese Relations Adrift in a Changing World,” Asia-Pacific Review 18, 1 (May 2011), pp. 73-83.

    • Professor, George Mason University
    • Ming Wan
    • Ming Wan

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