Five years have passed since the government of Japan purchased three of the disputed Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture from private ownership on Sept. 11, 2012.
The action triggered the fury of China, which claims possession of the islets in the East China Sea and calls them the Diaoyu Islands. Ties between Tokyo and Beijing plunged to rock bottom for a time, but there are signs that relations are taking a turn for the better these days, be it under the keynote of the status quo.
Apparently, however, it could hardly be said that a relationship of trust has been formed between the Japanese administration of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Chinese administration of President Xi Jinping.
Peace and prosperity in East Asia represent a common interest for Japan and China. And they are currently being threatened by North Korea’s ballistic missile test-firings and nuclear tests. It should only be called strange that, despite all that, no direct communication has been held between the leaders of both nations.
No Chinese president or premier has visited Japan since Tokyo’s Senkaku acquisition. Summit talks have been held only on the sidelines of international meetings, and only for short durations.
There remains a lot of leeway for improving bilateral ties.
The situation in waters surrounding the Senkakus also remains tense. Chinese government vessels have trespassed repeatedly on Japan’s territorial waters. They have accompanied Chinese fishing boats in approaching the islets, apparently to accumulate faits accomplis by pretending to be executing their official duties.
China should stop taking those unproductive actions that only increase tension.
The problem does not end with the Senkakus.
The military forces of China are stepping up their overall maritime advances. Chinese warships are navigating more and more often in waters around Japan, such as across straits, and Chinese aircraft are also approaching Japan’s airspace more frequently.
Japan, for its part, is no longer the same country that it was five years ago.
Tokyo has put in force national security laws, which, among other things, lifted the country’s self-imposed ban on exercising the right to collective self-defense.
Japan has also strengthened the defense of the Nansei islands, a chain of islands between Kyushu’s southern tip and Taiwan. These developments are on the minds of Beijing as it has pursued a further military buildup.
There is, after all, a fundamental difference in the state regimes of both countries, with one being governed by a liberal democracy and the other being ruled by the Communist Party. At the same time, though, there are strong and long-standing ties of trade, investments and personal exchanges between the two nations, which are firmly interdependent.
A two-pronged approach of cooperation and rivalry is the only answer that any nation could ever find in the face of this emergent power called China. But Japan’s diplomacy has tended to lean too much toward the latter.
The Japanese government recently expressed willingness to cooperate with the “One Belt, One Road” initiative of the Xi administration. That move could be seen as an attempt to regain a better balance in the aforementioned context.
Going back five more years before Tokyo’s Senkaku purchases, Japan-China relations were making a turn for the better in 2007, when Abe was serving as prime minister in his previous stint. Premier Wen Jiabao of China visited Japan that year. Chinese President Hu Jintao came to Japan the following year, whereupon a joint statement was worked out that touted mutual trust.
Let us recall that that was the state of bilateral relations only a short while ago.
On the security front, both countries should rush to build a system of mutual communication to prevent accidental military encounters. There should also be a more extensive relationship of mutual benefit on the economic and the environmental fronts.
There is no other choice but to make down-to-earth efforts to rebuild mutual ties.
Japan is next in line to host a Japan-China-South Korea trilateral summit, but the meeting has been put on hold.
For starters, Tokyo could work upon Beijing more actively toward the goal of realizing the summit.