Tuesday June 2, 2020


January 29, 2013

In late August of 2012, tensions between Japan and China began rapidly escalating over a long-held territorial dispute involving a small island chain called the Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese and the Senkaku Islands by Japan. Japan’s then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sent a letter to Chinese President Hu Jintao in the hopes of helping calm the situation.  Since then, Japan has elected a new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and China has appointed a new Communist Party Secretary (and soon-to-be President), Xi Jinping. Unfortunately, the smoldering tensions between China and Japan remain the same.

The Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands remain the major issue between the two countries. The Japanese government purchased the islands from a private owner in September 2012, an action denounced as invalid by Beijing. Since then, both China and Japan have sent ships and even fighter jets to patrol the seas and skies surrounding the islands. As both countries claim the area, each has accused the other of violating territorial boundaries. Neither side seems willing to back down, causing global concerns that an accident or miscalculation in the heat of the moment could spark an international incident in the disputed territory.

The United States has also played a role in the disputes, despite its stated wish to remain neutral. After a meeting with Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida on January 18, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton reiterated that the U.S.-Japan Mutual Defense Treaty would apply to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands if China attempted to take them by force. According to Secretary Clinton, “although the United States does not take a position on the ultimate sovereignty of the islands, we acknowledge they are under the administration of Japan and we oppose any unilateral actions that would seek to undermine Japanese administration and we urge all parties to take steps to prevent incidents and manage disagreements through peaceful means.”

In China, this remark, especially the reference to opposing “unilateral actions” meant to “undermine Japanese administration” was taken to mean that the United States wanted to pressure China into giving up its territorial claim. In response, the Chinese Foreign Ministry accused Secretary Clinton of “ignor[ing] the facts and confus[ing] right and wrong.” The United States is often accused in Chinese media of encouraging Japan to stand tough against China, fomenting tensions between the two in the hopes of slowing China’s rise. Secretary Clinton’s remarks were taken as evidence supporting this theory, despite Western media reports that the Obama administration has strongly advised Japan not to provoke China.

On January 25, 2013 Natsuo Yamaguchi, the head of Japan’s New Komeito Party, visited China. As the leader of one of the parties in Prime Minister Abe’s political coalition, Yamaguchi was the most senior Japanese politician to visit China since September 2012, when the tensions first came to a head. Yamaguchi met with Xi Jinping and delivered a personal letter from Abe, which reportedly called Sino-Japanese relations one of the most important bilateral relationships in the world and indicated a willingness to move forward with China. During their remarks, both Xi and Yamaguchi spoke of the importance of the relationship and their wish to overcome tensions. Yamaguchi specifically said that Japan hopes to “pursue ties with China while looking at the big picture.”

There is hope that this meeting will help set the relationship back on track, especially since China and Japan have both undergone leadership transition since the tensions began. However, true progress might have to wait until March, when Xi Jinping is expected to be formally named the President of China, and when Abe’s party is forecast to gain control of Japan’s upper house. Right now, some analysts fear that Xi and Abe are not yet established enough to risk compromising over the territorial dispute.

Both Western and Chinese news sources remain pessimistic that the relationship will improve even in a few months’ time. Western analysts note that Abe ran a nationalistic campaign, including promises to toughen Japan’s China policy. Abe has also stated his support for increased military spending, and has outlined a foreign policy strategy that seems designed to contain China. Abe’s first foreign trip after being elected Prime Minister was a tour of three Southeast Asian countries: Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia. The move was widely interpreted as an attempt to improve Japan’s relationship with ASEAN at China’s expense. Meanwhile, Xi Jinping has promised not to compromise on any of China’s “core national interests”, a vague phrase that might or might not include the Diaoyu Islands and other disputed territories.

China’s official media sources are deeply skeptical that the relationship will thaw in the near future, though they place the blame solely on Japan. Most commentaries on Yamaguchi’s visit approved of the message he brought, but called its sincerity into question. A commentary published by China’s official news outlet, Xinhua, accused Japan of being contradictory, saying that Japan reaches out to China, but also “stubbornly sticks to its wrong stance on the Diaoyu Islands issue.” A more strident article in the Global Times directly questioned Abe’s trustworthiness, wondering whether the “olive branch” extended by Yamaguchi was just a ruse designed to reassure Japan’s Western allies. Even more troubling, the article suggested that even if Japan sincerely desires to improve the relationship, China might not want to follow this path. Instead, the article recommended that China “teach Japan a lesson” to ensure Japan will avoid “provoking” China in the future. While Global Times is not an authoritative publication in China, and often runs extremely hard-line opinion pieces, the sentiments reflected in this article are also easily found in online forums and discussion among China’s many netizens. Such public pressure may also affect the Chinese government’s calculations.

Clearly, the nationalistic tensions involved in the territorial dispute will not be dispelled by Yamaguchi’s visit and Abe’s letter. In fact, Prime Minister Noda sent a similar letter to Beijing in August, yet the tensions remain. Both Japan and China seem to agree that the only way to resolve the issue is through dialogue, but it is unclear whether either Abe or Xi is truly willing to compromise over the territorial dispute.


For more information on the tensions in the Sino-Japanese relationship, please see the following news sources:

BBC “Japan PM Shinzo Abe begins South East Asia push in Vietnam”

BBC“Japan envoy meets Chinese leader amid islands dispute”

China Daily“New faces in Beijing, Tokyo may help mend ties”

New York Times“China Criticizes Clinton’s Remarks About Dispute With Japan Over Islands”

Wall Street Journal “Abe’s Diamond Defense Diplomacy”

Washington Post“Japan, China struggle to curb tensions”

Xinhua“Commentary: Ice between China, Japan can only be melted by sincere dialogue”


For Chinese language commentary on Sino-Japanese relations, please see the following news sources:

Global Times (环球时报) “中国一定要给日本深刻教训 让其不敢轻易挑衅”

People’s Daily (人民日报) “习近平会见日本公民党党首山口那津男”

Xinhua (新华网)“新华时评:中日关系要着眼大局才能把握方向”


Compiled and edited by Shannon Tiezzi.