Sino-Japanese Relations: Is the Door Creaking Open?

Japan has announced that its foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, will be visiting China; the first visit by a senior foreign policy official in nearly five years. At a time of increased tensions between the two nations over the Senkaku islets and Diaoyu Islands, as well as Chinese ‘expansionist’ policies and Japan’s security bill permitting it to use preemptive force, the high-level nature of the visit can be considered nothing short of extraordinary.

Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida

Japan’s Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida

The glaring issue between the two nations is the South China Sea. China has been aggressively asserting its claim, at one-point stating that it was ‘bigger’ than its neighbours and therefore entitled to lay claim to the disputed territory. Neighbouring nations have found themselves floundering in the midst of this expansion as the US, under the Obama administration, has been slow to react and has been perceived as weak in the face of other global crises, notably Ukraine, Syria and Iraq.

Moreover, Obama’s nudging of Japan to pass the controversial security bill appears to have sent a signal to other US allies, notably South Korea, that Obama expects the region’s nations to foot the resources in curbing Chinese influence. This is none more evident in Japan’s swift dispatch of two Maritime Self-Defence Force p-3C patrol aircraft to Vietnam’s Da Nana in February, signalling a new stage in Vietnam-Japan military cooperation.

Vietnam has felt particularly aggrieved by Chinese activities in the South China Sea and has found limited recourse in its pursuit for redress over China’s claim of the Paracel Islands. Although enjoying a historical relationship with Russia, Vietnam has found little support for its cause as Putin seeks to woo the Chinese. However, the situation has given rise to optimism of improved relations with the US and the possibility of a lifting of the arms embargo.

The Philippines have also found themselves in dispute with the Chinese over Scarborough Shoal and expressed dismay and anger at China’s establishment of Sansha City, an administrative body to oversee Chinese activities in the South China Sea.

So given the state of affairs, what can we expect from the visit to China?

South China Sea

Though this is the elephant in the room, it is unlikely that the parties will broach the topic. The visit is in essence a bid to create a platform to find some common ground, and both parties will be keen not to scupper this attempt at dialogue. Moreover, Japan has already signalled its displeasure over the situation in the build-up to the visit by announcing that it is increasing its security support for Vietnam. There is a chance of some very brief discussions though anything substantive and detailed is likely to be out of the question on this trip.

Common Ground

The Japanese foreign minister will be visiting Vietnam soon after his visit to China and will be expected to convey some news of the mood in Beijing. Given the unlikelihood of discussions, let alone agreements, over issues in the South China Sea, Japan will likely seek to suggest to Hanoi that the Chinese are willing to solve some of the issues diplomatically and amicably. Japan will seek to demonstrate this in the form of agreements on more ‘easier’ subjects such as climate change.

Chinese reception

The unknown factor in all this is how the Chinese will take to Japan’s attempts to create a platform for dialogue. Indeed, the Chinese view will be more evident in the level of delegates that the Chinese choose to send to discussions with the Japanese Foreign Minister than in any of the words exchanged between the two parties. China has taken advantage of US interests in the Middle East which has meant that the Obama administration has found Asia to be a secondary issue. However, China is also wary of pushing countries not typically known for being US allies, such as Vietnam, into that sphere of influence and becoming increasingly isolated and will therefore seek some sort of common ground with its neighbours.

Ultimately, this is a preliminary visit and an attempt to create a platform for further discussions. Although unlikely to cause anything of particular impact, it is nevertheless a step towards de-escalation and likely to be welcomed within the region.


Co-written with Momoko Hayashi who is majoring in political science and development studies at the School of Oriental and African Studies.