OPINION | Can an Olive Branch heal the Sino-Japanese Rift in the East China Sea?

OPINION | Can an Olive Branch heal the Sino-Japanese Rift in the East China Sea?

By Amrita Jash
Editor-in-Chief, IndraStra Global

OPINION | Can an Olive Branch heal the Sino-Japanese Rift in the East China Sea?

On September 5, on the sidelines of the G20 Summit, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, set a new normal by dismissing all odds. This marked to be the first one-on-one talk in 17 months, amidst heightened tensions over the territorial disputes. Although tensions in the East China Sea remain ratcheted but the talk has made a symbolic and significant overture in the diplomatic scenario. With the constant waning of Sino-Japanese relations, the “Xi-Abe talks” were high on the diplomatic agenda for both China and Japan. Calling the Sino-Japanese ties “troubled by complications at times”, Xi clearly spelled out that “no progress means regression.” To make the ‘much-needed progress’, Xi specifically pointed that “Both sides should bolster their sense of responsibility and crisis awareness, and work to build on the positive elements of bilateral ties while putting a lid on negative ones, in order to ensure the stable improvement of relations.” This statement forms the crux of the talks wherein there is an interest to mitigate the escalating tensions.

Given the increasing contingencies of an unwarranted military confrontation in the militarized East China Sea, the two countries agreed to speed up a planned aerial and maritime communications mechanism aimed at preventing a clash in the East China Sea. However, how far this consensus will be actualized remains contested. This has been a common rhetoric of the past and therefore, raises fundamental apprehension on the actualization of the current talks.  

Is this talk enough to bridge the rift? This pertinent query remains uncertain and open-ended. To say so, as in the past, following the 2014 talks at APEC and in 2015 at the Asia-Africa Summit, the leadership on either side failed to walk the talks. This is witnessed in the increasing tensions and the constant muscle flexing of either side in the East China Sea. In this atmospherics, the skepticism lies on the feasibility of the talks, that is, whether the “talk” will bring about any significant breakthrough in the longstanding East China Sea stalemate.   

Reflecting on the skepticism, Yang Bojiang, vice director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences contends that “[t]here will be no big change or advancement. Basically, the relationship will be an extension of the current line”. He further emphasized that “[i]t will improve step by step. It is unlikely to suddenly improve or suddenly deteriorate.” This intervention does raise a serious doubt on the unfolding of ties in accordance to the talks.   

While it cannot be overlooked that in the East China Sea, the risks of an unwarranted danger are constantly accelerated. Most notably, the risk entails three contingencies: first, an accidental or unintended incident in and around the disputed islands could trigger a military escalation of the crisis; second, either country could make a serious political miscalculation in an effort to demonstrate sovereign control; and third, either country could attempt to forcibly control the islands. Hence, in such a scenario, can the economic interdependence between China and Japan quell the risks of an armed conflict?  

The conventional liberal wisdom suggests that economic interdependence between states enhances peaceful relations, as French economist Frederic Bastiat said: “if goods don’t cross borders, armies will”. Wherein, the liberal peace argument hinges upon an assumption that economic interdependence fosters peaceful relations by giving states an economic incentive to avoid costly military disputes. However, this wisdom tends to be challenged by the current China-Japan relationship. To say so, as the correlation remains problematic in China-Japan relations due to the asymmetry of ‘hot economics and cold politics’. That is, both account for more than a fifth of global output and ranked as the third largest bilateral trade in the world with US$340 billion in 2014. China is Japan’s largest trading partner while Japan is China’s second-largest. Besides, Japan is also the largest investor in China, with almost US$30 billion more than the United States. While this large-scale economic interdependence would indicate a stability in the relationship, but in reality, these massive figures have failed to overshadow the political antagonisms. Of which one of the potential flashpoints is the East China Sea dispute.  

In this pressing scenario of a potential clash in the East China Sea, one aspect of truth is that even though tensions between China and Japan are rising, “economic version of mutual deterrence” is preserving the uneasy status quo between the two sides. This argument stands valid as so far both China and Japan have averted in taking the first step towards a war-like scenario. There exists a mutual understanding that a war will incur severe costs both literally and figuratively. Moreover, the economic logic looms large. China is a rising power and Japan is an established power, thereby, each needs the other.
To explain, China needs to buy Japanese products as much as Japan needs to sell them. Many of the high-tech products assembled in and exported from China, often on behalf of American and European firms, use advanced Japanese-made parts. China could not boycott Japan, let alone precipitate an actual conflict, without stymieing the export-fueled economic miracle that underpins Communist Party rule. What makes the stability in China-Japan relations important is that the two economies are deeply complementary, with different levels of industrial and technological capability that generate business and investment on a scale not matched in any of China’s other economic relationships, even that with the United States. In making a shift clean industrial technologies, Japan is a natural partner in developing the new model of Chinese growth. These dynamics reflect the enormity in the geo-economic potential of the economic relationship between China and Japan. Given these economic complementarities, as liberal theory would suggest that economic interactions of such should bring peace to a bilateral relationship through “harmony of interests” because no one wants to fight a war with a nation with which it trades or in which many of its companies open their factories.  In this perspective, an armed conflict between China and Japan does not lie in their rational interest given their large scale economic engagement, as practically, it is a trade that fulfills the national interest in terms of growth and development. In this regard, China and Japan gain more from trading than that of waging a war against each other. But in reality, China-Japan relations surpasses this pragmatic logic and exists in a paradox. That is, instead of optimizing on the rational policy choice, China, and Japan, despite having a strong economic relationship, shares political animosities which rank high in the diplomatic agenda. This imbalance greatly affects the stability of their relationship as well as the Asia-Pacific region. In this view, a conflict between China and Japan in the East China Sea is also not in the best interest of regional stability as well as global economy. Hence, it is in global interest that China and Japan settle the East China Sea dispute peacefully.   

What lies next? In an overall perspective, although fostering economic ties can temporarily prevent the chances of an armed conflict and also ease the escalating tensions, but in the long term will not be enough to fix the problem. The economic interdependence is a binding force that has so far acted as a deterrent between China and Japan, but with the intensified militarization in the East China Sea, such an economic binding would not help to escape an accidental clash of the militaries that could lead to an unintended conflict between China and Japan. The economic interdependence does help in alleviating the tensions between China and Japan but does not act as a permanent solution to the maritime crisis. Given this perspective, although the talks have succeeded in providing a temporary thaw to the escalated tensions, but will it be able to forge a significant breakthrough in stabilizing the relationship remains highly contested. Here, the wisdom lies in greater confidence building between China and Japan in order to quell the risks of a clash in the contested East China Sea. However, to note, this conventional logic has significantly failed to take a lead in the diplomatic calculus of both China and Japan. The cold politics still weighs down the relationship despite burgeoning economic interdependence. What can, therefore, be anticipated is that of a gradual improvement in the ties based on the mutual commitment of both sides to stabilize the relationship given the larger objectives, as the stakes remain high on either side. Therefore, only a jointly deliberated and calculated move can help neutralize the risks of a tragedy.

About the Author:

Amrita Jash (TR RID K-5665-2015), is Editor-in-Chief of IndraStra Global and is a Doctoral Research Scholar at the Centre for East Asian Studies (Chinese Division), School of International Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University. Official Website: www.amritajash.in / Twitter: @amritajash

Cite this Article:    

Jash, A. "OPINION | Can an Olive Branch heal the Sino-Japanese Rift in the East China Sea?", IndraStra Global Vol. 002, Issue No: 10 (2016), 0063 http://www.indrastra.com/2016/10/OPINION-Can-Olive-Branch-heal-Sino-Japanese-Rift-East-China-Sea-002-10-2016-0063.html | ISSN 2381-3652

AIDN0021020160063 | OPINION | Can an Olive Branch heal the Sino-Japanese Rift in the East China Sea?
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