At the Munich Security Conference last month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said the China-Japan relationship is “at its worst.” But that’s not the most colorful statement explaining, and contributing to, China-Japan tensions of late.
At Davos, a member of the Chinese delegation referred to Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong Un as “troublemakers,” lumping the Japanese prime minister together with the volatile young leader of a regime shunned by the international community. Abe, in turn, painted China as militaristic and overly aggressive, explaining how — like Germany and Britain on the cusp of World War One — China and Japan are economically integrated, but strategically divorced. Even J.K. Rowling has played her part in recent weeks, with China’s and Japan’s ambassadors to Britain each referring to the other country as a villain from Harry Potter.
Of course, actions speak louder than words — and there’s been no shortage of provocative moves on either side. In November, Beijing declared an East Asian Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) — which requires all aircraft to follow instructions issued by Chinese authorities, even over contested territory, which pushed tensions to new highs. The following month, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine — a site associated with Japanese World War militarism that makes it an automatic lightning rod for anti-Japanese sentiment among Japan’s neighbors.
But despite the clashes and growing conflict, it remains exceedingly unlikely that China-Japan fallout will escalate into military engagement. China won’t completely undermine economic relations with Japan; at the provincial level, Chinese officials are much more interested in attracting Japanese investment. And Japan still sees the success of its businesses in the vast Chinese market as an essential part of efforts to revive its own domestic economy, even if its companies are actively hedging their bets by shifting investment away from China. The relationship is unlikely to reach a boiling point. Rather, we are more likely to see sustained cycles of tension.
So if both sides intend to limit the potential for conflict, how concerned should we be? Even if military engagement is highly unlikely, China-Japan is still the world’s most geopolitically dangerous bilateral relationship and that will remain the case. There are a number of reasons why.