Last month, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China to meet with Prime Minister Li Keqiang and President Xi Jinping. Abe's visit resulted in numerous bilateral deals, including a $30 billion credit swap and agreements to cooperate in overseas development. And on the sidelines of a gathering of defense ministers in Singapore, Japanese defense minister Takeshi Iwaya met his Chinese counterpart Wei Fenghe. They too reached agreements, which included strengthening exchanges between their defense authorities and troops and reaffirming a plan to establish a hotline launched in June to avoid unintended incidents in the air or at sea between their militaries.
These meetings and otherwise relative calm between them may give the impression that bilateral ties are improving. But such an interpretation risks overlooking the fact that China and Japan are engaged in strategic competition, anchored firmly in three fundamental differences. Because of this, it is more likely than not that the current Japan-China rapprochement will fail.
The first difference is their positions on the Pinnacle Islands. Japan has administrative control of what it calls the Senkaku Islands, but China (and Taiwan) disputes Japan's ownership. Beijing has said repeatedly that the Diaoyu Dao (the Chinese name) have been an inseparable part of Chinese territory since the Ming Dynasty. Xi is one of many Chinese officials to take this position saying, “We absolutely will not permit any person, any organization, any political party—at any time, in any form—to separate any piece of Chinese territory from China.” Tokyo, with ownership over the islands, views the Senkakus as an inherent part of its territory, under its valid control and therefore not open to questions of sovereignty. These conflicting positions are non-negotiable and have not changed.
They also have differing threat perceptions. According to Chinese defense white papers, China identifies an extensive list of security threats to its interests. Among others, these include the United States strengthening its regional alliances, the Japanese threats to Chinese territorial sovereignty and maritime rights, and maritime sovereignty claims by states in the East and South China Seas. To meet these threats, China has poured resources into its defenses, embarking on a robust military modernization program. It has also been increasingly willing to act against perceived threats to its territory in the East and South China Seas.
Japan's views are the exact opposite. It views the United States' regional presence as a reassuring force and sees China's unilateral claims to large swaths of water and geographical features as a major regional concern. What is worse for Tokyo, Beijing's military spending, coupled with its increased military and paramilitary activity in Japanese waters and airspace, threatens Japan's security and attempts to undermine the status quo. To strengthen its ability to deter or defeat this Chinese aggression, Japan has been strengthening its defense capabilities and its security relationships with key regional countries, including the United States. These diametrically opposed threat perceptions show no signs of changing.
The third difference is their visions of the international order. As a growing power, China has demonstrated a willingness to demand more influence in the international system, as it views the existing order as constraining. As such, despite joining numerous international and regional institutions, and boosting its support for multilateral activities, China prioritizes arrangements that it controls, challenges and seeks to revise aspects of the existing order, and takes assertive policies vis-à-vis its immediate neighbors. Japan, by contrast, could be called a hyper-status quo power. Tokyo sees itself as having benefited from the order, ensuring the peace and stability it needed to recover and prosper after World War II. Satisfied, Tokyo has built its international agenda almost solely around upholding and strengthening the order. Rather than constraining, the order has given Japan a louder voice and role in shaping the rules and norms that make up the order, as well as the multitude of multilateral organizations to which it belongs but does not necessarily lead.
There is no doubt that Abe's China visit was important. Not only was it the first official visit to China in almost seven years, but it also provided an opportunity to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. While the agreements may be interpreted as evidence that ties are improving, their fundamental differences remain unresolved. And without resolution, there is a clear limit on how far rapprochement can continue.
Rather than viewing the summit as evidence of improving relations, it is more plausible to interpret the pleasantries as evidence the two Asian powers have learned how to better manage their relations. Since 2012, when they have allowed issues of history or territorial claims to define their relations, bilateral ties have nosedived more often than not. Recently, they have tended to downplay these issues; instead, recognizing the importance of economic and trade ties, areas where both can benefit. Even the maritime hotline is indicative of better management, as they are seeking ways to avoid unnecessary escalation, if possible.
But should an issue arise regarding their fundamental differences, history suggests that these differences will dictate the nature of bilateral ties. Because none of these differences have been resolved, it is hard to believe the current détente will last.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is a political scientist at the nonprofit, nonpartisan RAND Corporation.
This commentary originally appeared on Debating Japan (CSIS) on December 6, 2018. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.