By Bonnie Glaser & Jacqueline Vitello
Beijing has upped the ante in its dispute with Tokyo by launching an intensive campaign to ostracize Japan in the international community.
In late April, China will host in Qingdao the Western Pacific Naval Symposium and an international fleet review to commemorate the 65th anniversary of the Chinese navy. To demonstrate its ire toward Japan, presumably over its handling of the territorial dispute in the East China Sea and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit last December to the controversial Yasukuni shrine, Beijing plans to exclude Japan’s Maritime Self-Defense Force from the international fleet review, which will be attended by the chiefs of naval forces from more than 20 countries. In response to this intentional snub, Japan’s longtime ally the United States has opted out of the exercise as well, and other nations could soon follow suit. If enough countries boycott the event, perhaps Beijing will recognize that its efforts to marginalize Japan in the international community are not working, and may actually be counterproductive.
China’s crusade to isolate Japan internationally began in earnest earlier this year, when more than 30 Chinese ambassadors published commentaries accusing Japan of returning to militarist policies. More recently, on his recent trip to Germany, President Xi requested to make an official visit to several Holocaust memorial sites, including the famous Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, in a thinly veiled effort to contrast Germany, which atoned for its sins in World War II, and Japan, which allegedly has not “properly” apologized for its wartime aggressions against China.
Diplomats in many capitals around the world have received a Chinese demarche regarding Japan’s alleged “revival of militarism.” As part of this diplomatic drive, Chinese officials cite Japan’s decision to raise its military budget, which in 2014 will amount to a 2.2 percent increase. This incremental increase is miniscule compared to China’s 12.2 percent increase in its 2014 military budget. Moreover, this is the first significant increase in Japan’s defense expenditures in more than a decade; whereas China’s military spending has seen double digit increases annually over the same period.
Beijing evidently hopes that by isolating Japan and vilifying Abe it can gain the upper hand in China’s test of wills with Japan. This includes the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which are under Japan’s administrative control. China seeks to compel Tokyo to admit that a sovereignty dispute exists and, on that basis, negotiate confidence building measures that would apply to the waters and air space in the East China Sea, in which China declared an air defense identification zone last November.
A brief examination of the responses of various countries suggests that China’s “isolate Japan” campaign is not working, and indeed may backfire. Australia’s Prime Minister Tony Abbott has called Japan “Australia’s best friend in Asia” and a “strong ally.” Angela Merkel’s government opted to steer clear of the fray and declined Chinese requests to include Holocaust memorial sites on Xi’s itinerary. China was therefore not only unable to draw attention to its cause, but was also indirectly snubbed by its most important European trading partner. The relationship between Tokyo and New Delhi is also being strengthened significantly, in part due to shared anxieties about the rise of China.
China’s behavior in the region has also bolstered U.S.-Japan defense cooperation. The two countries are jointly revising the U.S.-Japan Defense Guidelines, which will serve to strengthen the bilateral relationship. Beijing’s attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo has failed miserably. In addition, China’s parallel crusades in the East and South China Seas have forged stronger alliances between Japan and its Southeast Asian neighbors. The Philippines, which seeks to formally strengthen its claim to territory in the South China Sea before an international tribunal, has welcomed Japan’s support and assistance to enhance its maritime surveillance capacity. Vietnam has likewise bolstered ties with Tokyo in a bid to win partners in its sovereignty battle against Beijing. Rather than isolating Tokyo, Beijing has handed Japan new and stronger partnerships.
China’s symbolic anti-Japanese antics are clearly ineffectual. Instead of whipping up anti-Japanese sentiment at home and abroad, Beijing should seek ways to de-escalate Sino-Japanese tensions and find common ground with Tokyo in building a peaceful and prosperous future. In a gesture of goodwill symbolizing the oft-quoted “peaceful rise,” the Chinese could start down a path of better relations by extending Japan an invitation to the upcoming international fleet review.
Ms. Bonnie S. Glaser is Senior Adviser for Asia within the Freeman Chair in China Studies at CSIS. Ms. Jacqueline Vitello is a Research Associate and Program Coordinator with the Freeman Chair in China Studies.
Bonnie S. Glaser is a senior adviser for Asia and director of the China Power Project at CSIS.