News analysis

A fragile detente in Japan-China ties, but challenges remain

Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (left) meets Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi (right) at the Zhongnanhai Leadership Compound in Beijing on Jan 28. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

TOKYO - One day after its Foreign Minister Taro Kono returned from a fence-mending trip to Beijing, Japan scrambled jets to intercept a Chinese Y-9 intelligence-gathering aircraft on Monday (Jan 29).

The Y-9, according to the Japanese Defence Ministry, was flying through the Tsushima Strait separating South Korea and Japan. While the jet did not enter Japanese airspace, it was within Tokyo's broader Air Defence Identification Zone that Beijing does not recognise.

The incident prompted Mr Kono to urge China on Tuesday (Jan 30) to refrain from provocative actions that might upset the slight detente in bilateral ties. It also showed, he said, the urgency for both nations to swiftly implement a joint military hotline to avoid conflict.

Yet this, coupled with their ongoing spat over a set of disputed islands in the East China Sea, shows that much as both countries are making efforts to paper over the cracks, flashpoints are bound to occur given their mutual historical distrust.

Mr Kono's two-day visit to Beijing was the first by a Japanese foreign minister in almost two years, and took place as both sides mark the 40th anniversary of the signing of a peace and friendship treaty this year.

Besides his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi, Mr Kono met Premier Li Keqiang and State Councillor Yang Jiechi. The meetings helped pave the way for a much-delayed trilateral summit between China, Japan and South Korea to finally be held in Tokyo this year.

The overall positive mood in bilateral ties might also lead Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to make official reciprocal visits for the first time since they took office in late 2012.

The Yomiuri Shimbun reported on Tuesday that China will likely resume sending top defence officials for exchange programmes in Japan in September. Beijing suspended its side of the exchanges in 2012, when Tokyo laid claim to the East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China.

The 10-month bilateral exchange programme began in 2003. While China stopped sending its officers, Yomiuri said Tokyo continued to dispatch its defence officials and Self-Defence Force personnel to Chinese military training institutes.

However, difficult challenges remain for Sino-Japan ties, as both Mr Abe and Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying separately acknowledged on Monday.

Mr Abe, speaking in Parliament, said it was crucial to "firmly and properly control disagreements".

In Beijing, Ms Hua told a regular news briefing: "Now China-Japan relations are at a critical stage where positive progresses have been made and yet many disturbances and hurdles still exist.

"We hope that the Japanese side can make concerted efforts with China and move in the same direction to bring bilateral relations back to the track of normal and sound development at an early date."

This was, perhaps, exemplified by the cool reception that Mr Kono's all-smiles approach was met with during his handshake with Mr Wang that preceded their talks.

Japan's Nikkei Asian Review quoted insiders from the 3½-hour, closed-door meeting as saying that the "two men essentially talked past each other" on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute.

In an unprecedented move on Jan 11, Beijing deployed a stealth nuclear submarine into waters near the islands. This was slammed by Tokyo as an act that "unilaterally raised tensions", though Beijing retorted that it was tracking Japanese ships and that there were no "incursions" because the islands belong to China anyway.

Dr Jitsuo Tsuchiyama, who teaches international relations at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo, told The Straits Times that he sees a form of "prisoners' dilemma" in how both nations have, for the longest time, found it difficult to cooperate even though it would be in their best interests to do so.

"Even if Japan were to go along with China, will China make any compromises with Japan?" he asked. "And neither side will be willing to shelf the Senkaku issue even for the time being."

Japan, which in 2010 ceded its status as Asia's largest economy to China, has traditionally seen its larger and more populous neighbour as a major competitor. China's nationalistic Global Times newspaper on Sunday quoted the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences' Institute of Japanese Studies director Lu Yaodong as saying that Japan's propensity to "hype the 'China threat' theory" will continue to shadow the possibility of sustainable bilateral ties.

But the equation has been altered with China now growing in eminence and influence both politically and economically.

While Tokyo has long jockeyed for influence with Beijing over emerging economies from South-east Asia to Africa, it has signalled its willingness for a more collaborative approach on China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) - though with the caveat that projects must uphold international norms of transparency and debt sustainability.

The Yomiuri Shimbun, urging caution in an editorial on Monday, noted there are security concerns about the BRI, which "could transform harbours and other facilities in developing countries into military sites".

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.