V.O. Kistanov – Japan is looking for partners all around the world for counteraction to the “Chinese threat”

During the last three years the territorial dispute between Tokyo and Beijing about belonging of desert Senkaku islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) in the East China Sea has gained an unprecedented intensity. What is focused on in it is quickly strengthening economic and military and political rivalry between two Asian giants: the old one – Japan, and the new one – China. Even the recent change of government in these two countries didn’t help to reduce the level of confrontation. On the contrary, the degree of rhetoric and demonstrative declarations has only increased from the two sides. Tokyo, being disturbed by the growing economic and military power of its neighbor, and by its aggressive actions in relation to the islands argued, tries its best to gain support from different countries for “Suppressing China”. However, its hopes don’t always come true.


Washington’s double game

Japan considers the USA to be the only guarantee for their military safety and territorial integrity, because these countries have the respective security pact. In published by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan Diplomatic Bluebook for the year 2013 it is directly stated that Japan is facing the threats to its land, maritime and air space, and to the lives of its citizens, because Chinese ships are always entering the waters around the Senkaku islands in the East China Sea. As it is said in the fundamental foreign-policy document of the country, in these conditions the government is determined to strengthen the alliance with the USA as a cornerstone in the national security policy, because strengthening of control is inevitable [1].

However, Washington itself is in fact playing a double game in relation to the Japanese territorial dispute with China. At the meeting with Xi Jinping, the President of the People’s Republic of China, in California in June 2013 President Obama asked his counterpart to the de-escalation of territorial dispute with Japan concerning the group of islands in the East China Sea. But Obama also said that the USA is taking a neutral stance in the matter of sovereignty over the Senkaku islands, and offered the Chinese side to settle the territorial dispute with Japan by means of dialogue.

From his side, Xi Jinping, without talking directly about Japan, expressed his hope for acts of provocation to stop, and all countries, participating in the dispute, will make efforts to settle the question by means of dialogue. But, frankly speaking, Li Keqiang, the new Prime Minister of the People’s Republic of China, meaning the Potsdam Declaration of 1945, directly said in that very city on 26 May that “the territories, stolen from China by Japan, must be returned”.

In the Defense White Paper, published in April 2013, China says that it is Japan which created the problem of the islands argued [2]. And the representative of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of PRC declared that the Diaoyu islands present the China’s “vital interests” [3]. Since the term “vital interests” was up until recently used by Beijing only in relation to Tibet, Taiwan and Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, the Japanese experts considered this China’s declaration as its intention not to make any concessions in the territorial dispute with Japan.

On the other hand, recently published Japan’s White Defense Paper mentions that some Chinese ships and planes invaded the territorial waters and air domain of Japan and undertook dangerous acts, which could become the reason of emergency situations.

Stressing the USA neutrality towards the problems of sovereignty over Senkaku/Diaoyu, high-ranking American officials more than once declared that the mentioned islands are within the scope of American-Japanese security pact. To confirm the seriousness of these statements Tokyo and Washington, in spite of Beijing’s strong protests, conducted joint military exercise in California in June 2013. According to their legend, the subdivisions of Japan’s Self-Defense Forces in cooperation with the US Armed Forces landed on the island, captured by the enemy, and took it back.

We can understand that Chinese Army is implied by “enemy” and Senkaku/Diaoyu archipelago – by the island. What makes this action significant is the fact that ironically (or deliberately?) it had been conducted just after the meeting of Obama and Xi Jinping, which was held also in California. An additional importance is added to it by the fact that it was the first time when all three types of Japanese Self-Defense Forces: land, naval and air forces took part in the joint military exercise with the USA. As Japanese observers note, these exercises are in the base of new defense course of Japan. Its aim is strengthening the defense of the Nansei island chain, stretching from Kyushu to Taiwan and practically blocking an access to the Pacific Ocean’s “big waters” for China.

The ocean for two?

At the same time we have to mention some concern, which can be seen in some remarks of Japanese experts, about the fact that the USA, establishing stable relationships with China and sharing with it “the living space” in the Asia-Pacific Region, could ignore Japan’s interests, and particularly, towards its sovereignty over the Senkaku islands. So, the Sankei Shimbun newspaper notes that the President of the USA Obama and the President of the PRC Xi Jinping at the abovementioned meeting in California came to the agreement that it’s necessary to build the cooperative relationships of “new type”. However, further it is directly said in the paper: “It would be desirable that the USA, having become the superpower after the Cold War, and quickly developing China have friendly relations, but it shouldn’t lead to the establishment of global domination of the two countries” [4]. The postulate about the fact that “there couldn’t be positive relations between Washington and Beijing at the cost of Tokyo”, which was in the editorial of the Japanese official organ – the Japan Times, – just confirms that there are such fears in Japan.

Particular concern of the Japanese observers was stirred up by Xi Jinping’s declaration during meeting with Obama that there’s plenty of space in the Pacific Ocean. According to the Sankei Shimbun’s opinion, this statement is a plain manifestation of China’s marine ambitions, and it should arouse suspicion of Pacific countries, including Japan. As the paper’s observers write, if this statement means that the East China Sea, comprising the Senkaku islands, is the part of “China’s domain”, then Japan can’t ignore it [5].

While strengthening the military alliance with the USA because of China’s offensive actions towards the islands questioned, Tokyo at the same time intends to gain military support from several other countries of Asia-Pacific Region. Following this aim, Shinzo Abe’s administration has sent high-ranking representatives of the Self-Defense Forces to nine Asian countries and Australia since being elected up to June 2013. The Asian countries include Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, India and Pakistan. Japanese mass media don’t hide that the government’s efforts in this area are induced by growing concern about China’s increasing marine actions.

And in the end of June – beginning of July the Japan’s Minister of Defense Itsunori Onodera himself visited the Philippines and Hawaii for the purpose of discussing “steps for controlling China” with high-ranking officials of the Philippines and the USA. The trip also had a domestic-policy meaning: before the July elections to the upper house of the Japan’s Parliament the government tried to use the Onodera’s trip to demonstrate to the conservative circles of the country, that it has a hard-line position in matters of national security.

Problematic Indian card

In the Tokyo’s foreign-policy strategy, especially in its territorial diplomacy, occupying more and more place in this strategy, a special attention is paid to India – one more growing Asian economic giant, which political role on the international arena is also increasing now. Japanese government regards this country not only as an economic counterbalance to China, able in some ways to reduce excessive and even dangerous Japan’s dependence on Chinese economy,   but also as a political and military counterbalance to it. Besides, Japanese politicians reckon upon similar concern of Delhi about Beijing increasing its marine power, and upon existing territorial dispute between these two countries.

However, as the official visit of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to Japan in May 2013 showed, India isn’t going to be played as a card in Japan’s game for suppressing China. Though, it was obvious as early as during Abe’s first term as Prime Minister in 2006-2007. At that time Delhi practically ignored Japan’s offer to create a quadripartite security department, which would consist of Japan, Australia, India and the USA and have an obvious anti-Chinese motive. This offer couldn’t go with Indian foreign-policy strategy, which pays equal attention to the relations not only with Japan and the USA, but also with China, Russia and other countries. Differences in Japan’s and India’s approaches to China appeared also during the above stated visit of Indian Prime Minister to Tokyo.

Indeed, on the one hand, it’s said in the joint statement of Abe and Singh, that the both countries will regularly conduct joint naval training, begin negotiations on exporting Japanese military amphibious aircrafts to India. Moreover, they intend to cooperate in counteraction to cyber attacks, protection of sea-traffic routes, and also in strengthening the defense and coast guard of both countries. These items were included into the declaration in view of increasing presence of China on the sea, including the Indian Ocean also.

By means of building the network of seaports in Pakistan, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka Beijing is carrying out the strategy of “String of Pearls”, that is creating the chain of their own base stations around India – the main geopolitical rival of China in Asia. Besides, from the middle of April till the beginning of May 2013 there was another aggravation of confrontation between armed forces of China and India in the conflict area of Kashmir. According to the data of the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, China’s military costs in 2013 will make up ¥12.3 billion, while the total amount of such expenditures in Japan and India will be much less – ¥8.3 billion. As it is stressed in the paper, for Japan or India it would be difficult counteract China alone, so the two countries adopted a strategy of suppressing China by means of cooperation in the sphere of security [6].

However, on the other hand, as it is said in that very Yomiuri, India isn’t very interested in a security policy, which is openly aimed at a particular country. It is more interested in such a cooperation, which could help get access to military technologies for strengthening its military resources. As a representative of Indian Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced, the county’s highest priority is stability in the Indian Ocean. He also said that, although India’s cooperation with the USA and Japan is vital, it’s not going to take part in the foreign policy of the USA or Japan, which are aimed at creating a system of surrounding or suppressing China [7].


Mixed Southeast Asia

Cooperation with Southeast Asian countries is considered by Abe’s administration to be not only an important factor for recovery of the Japanese stagnating economy, but also a way of “dispersing” China’s territorial pressure on other, neighboring, countries. Japan’s efforts to organize resistance to “Chinese encroachment” within a framework of ASEAN haven’t been successful so far, because this organization depends greatly on China in matters of economy. However, Tokyo pays much attention to the bilateral interaction in the military and political sphere with those members of the organization, who have their own territorial conflicts with China in the East China Sea, and first of all with Vietnam and Philippines.

Shinzo Abe’s visit to three countries of Southeast Asian countries – Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia – in January 2013 became the obvious manifestation of this. It was the first Abe’s overseas trip since he took office of Prime Minister for the second time. The Japanese media didn’t hide the fact that the aim of this trip was to strengthen the relations with the Southeast Asian countries in view of increasing China’s offensive policy in the region. During the visit Abe stressed the importance of using international law to solve territorial disputes between China and its neighbours in the East China and South China Sea.

He found the warmest welcome and total mutual understanding in Hanoi. Tokyo is going to extend cooperation with it both in economic and security spheres. The Minister of Foreign Affairs Fumio Kishida visited Manila in January 2013 with the same purpose. The peculiarity of this visit was the Philippines’ request to provide them with patrol ships for increasing their coastal guard potential in the South China Sea. As for Thailand, unlike Vietnam and the Philippines, it holds to the reserved attitude towards Japan’s appeals to cooperate in the matter of suppressing China’s “marine expansion”.

In the Southeast Asia Japan pays special attention to Burma, which is not a member of ASEAN and it has been opened by the ruling military regime to the outside world only since 2011. China took advantage of this country’s long isolation from the West and managed to take dominating positions in economy, as well as in politics. Now Tokyo, having got the green light from the Washington, is determined to displace its Chinese rival in this Asian country, very promising both in economic and in political aspects. Japanese business is intended not to miss an opportunity and make use of Burma’s rich natural resources, as well as its high-capacity domestic market, having about 60 million potential customers. During his visit to this country in the end of May 2013, Abe not only wrote off its debt in the amount of $1.8 billion, but also promised to provide a new loan of $500 million.

So, the Southeast Asia, in spite of very diverse countries within it, is more vividly considered by Japan to be a kind of economic and military and political backup in the matter of “Chinese threat”.


And Australia and New Zealand

Japan aims to include the countries of the southern Pacific Ocean to the group of the countries, which agree with the idea of “suppressing China” in its territorial claims to the neighboring countries. During the visit of Australian Minister for Defence Stephen Smith to Tokyo in September 2012, his colleague Satoshi Morimoto complained that Japan was still experiencing problems in its actions towards Chinese and Taiwanese ships, which often approached the argued islands in the East China Sea.

Smith replied that Japan and Australia were maritime nations and they should provide security of sea routes on the basis of the international law. Although, now Canberra, as well as India, is still having a cautious attitude to international formations, having obvious anti-Chinese nature.

And during the visit of Japan’s Minister of Foreign Affairs to New Zealand in the beginning of June 2013 Fumio Kishida and his New Zealand colleague Murray McCully said that the both countries share the strategic position in relation to the situation in the Asia-Pacific Region. They also confirmed the importance of peaceful settlement of disputes, concerning sea areas, in accordance with the international law. It is an open secret that there’s an anti-Chinese meaning implied in this statement.

Europe’s participation

Japanese analysts suppose that for “suppressing China” Japan might find partners in Europe as a whole or in its parts and countries. Thus, the newspaper Sankei Shimbun in the article about Francois Hollande’s, the President of France, visit to Japan in the beginning of June 2013, expressed hope that the leaders of both countries share concern about “Chinese threat” [8]. And the paper is sure that “the expansion of cooperation and dialogue between Europe and Japan itself will contribute to the process of suppressing China” [9].

At the same time, the publication expressed concern about France intending to sell special equipment for helicopters’ takeoff and landing on the ship decks to China. It supposed that this equipment could be used on ships, which for many months have been sent by China to the sea waters around the Senkaku islands.

It’s reasonable to suppose that in the near future Japan will try to establish close relationships with NATO for the purpose of strengthening its own military position on the international arena because of the same “Chinese factor”. This can be proved by the Joint Political Declaration, which was signed by the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and NATO’s Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in Tokyo in April 2013. The Declaration should become a basis for the further development of the relationship between Japan and NATO.

This is a first joint declaration, signed between one of the biggest Far Eastern countries and the most powerful organization in the world. The mentioned declaration points out the spheres, where cooperation between the signers could be improved. For example, among them is closer coordination in crisis management and counteraction to cyber attacks. Western countries have been strongly criticizing China for these very things. Actually, this step means for the West completion of creating the global military formation by means of linking Japanese-American security pact and NATO. Certainly, China is left outside this geopolitical formation, though, as well as Russia.

With the same aim of suppressing China, Tokyo also pays attention to the Eastern Europe. During his European tour in the middle of June 2013 Prime Minister Abe met leaders of the Visegrad group in Warsaw (Poland, Hungary, Czech Republic and Slovakia). At the meeting Abe expressed readiness to improve economic relations and ties in the security sphere with these countries. It’s notable that the Japanese Prime Minister also touched upon the issue of growing China’s presence in the Eastern Europe. As it is mentioned in the paper Yomiuri Shimbun, in the light of China’s growing activity in the East China Sea and other marine districts, the statement, announced at the meeting, stressed the importance of following the international laws, such as the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea [10].


And even Russia

Recently among experts and mass media of Japan the topic of involving Russia into “the wide net” of anti-Chinese checks and balances painstakingly created by Tokyo has been discussed more and more thoroughly. The paradox of the situation is that Japanese analysts see a companion for fight with the threat from the country with which it has peace treaty in the country with which Japan has no formal treaty of peace at all. By the way, it seems that the conflict around Senkaku/Diaoyu islands put an end to celebrations on the 35 anniversary of this treaty of peace that were planned in Japan and China in August 2013.

According to the opinion of the Japanese, the reason for such estimates is Russia’s concern about China increasing its economic and military power, and marine activities, such as plans for development of the Northern Sea Route. They suppose that this is considered by Russia to be a “Chinese threat” on the Far East in the spheres of economy and security, so they make Moscow seek rapprochement with Tokyo for neutralizing this “threat”. According to their opinion, Japan should take advantage of such a concern for the purpose of joint counteraction to “China’s intrigues”.

The Sankei newspaper speaks on this topic more sincerely than others, it writes: “Since the last [2012] year, there have been appearing ideas in Russia about the necessity of increasing cooperation with Japan. One of the reasons for that is an anxious feeling about China’s actions, which is striving for hegemony in the sea” [11]. The same paper in another issue notes that Japan’s Prime Minister intends to take advantage of Russia’s wish to rapprochement with Japan and improvement of relations with it for the purpose of creating “network for blockading China” [12].

However, at the same time Japan has its own fear about coordination of Moscow and Beijing’s actions in their territorial disputes with Russia. But there’s an encouraging point for the Japanese politicians, which is that in the territorial dispute between Japan and China Russia has a neutral stance, declaring that the problem should be solved by means of dialogue between the two countries.

Japanese analysts find confirmation of their suppositions about Russia being concerned about “Chinese threat” in the fact of creating a new negotiating formation with participation of Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Ministers for Defence of both countries (2+2), which was arranged for by Putin and Abe during their meeting in Moscow in April. The mouthpiece of Japanese business community, newspaper Nihon Keizai Shimbun writes frankly: “Such factors of instability, as military strengthening of China and the problem of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, constitute a menace both for Japan and Russia, and in such conditions starting negotiations “2+2” is a great step forward” [13].

We should also mention that, counting on Moscow’s concern about “Chinese threat”, the Japanese experts hope for it to make concessions in the territorial dispute over the South Kuril Islands with Tokyo, which would become a good condition for rapprochement between Russia and Japan on anti-Chinese basis. Although, in the present situation, when the dispute over Senkaku/Diaoyu can be followed by a real military clash between Japan and China, it would be more logical for Japan to renounce its territorial claims to Russia.

The idea of need for leveling Russian-Japanese territorial dispute while Japan is involved into the islands conflict with China, which can become a catastrophe for Tokyo, can be seen in the commentary in the Japan Times. It writes: “the Abe’s administration, which is going through a head-on collision with China over the sovereignty of Senkaku, lay stress on creating relations of cooperation with neighboring countries. That’s why it can’t let itself be involved into lengthy negotiations [with Russia] for the settlement of territorial dispute” [14]. Apparently, this is one of Japan’s motives for speeding-up peace treaty negotiations between Russia and Japan, which was arranged by Putin and Abe in Moscow.

And Sankei Shimbun, for its part, expresses concern that, in conditions of improving Russian-Chinese and deteriorating Japanese-Chinese relations, China will strive for the further rapprochement with Russia. “How far Abe’s administration can interpose between Russia and China coordinating their measures?”, – this is the question asked by the paper [15].

However, it is obvious that it would be in Moscow’s interests to develop equally good relations of cooperation both with Japan and with China, considering all nuances of interrelations between its major Far Eastern neighbors.



  1. Quotation from: Japan Times. 06/04/2013.
  2. Quotation from: Yomiuri Shimbun. 22/04/2013.
  3. Quotation from: Japan Times. 27/04/2013.
  4. Sankei Shimbun. 09/06/2013.
  5. Sankei Shimbun, op. cit.
  6. Yomiuri Shimbun. 31/05/2013.
  7. Yomiuri Shimbun, op. cit.
  8. Sankei Shimbun. 08/06/2013.
  9. Sankei Shimbun, op. cit.
  10. Yomiuri Shimbun. 18/06/2013.
  11. Sankei Shimbun. 08/02/2013.
  12. Sankei Shimbun, op. cit.
  13. Nihon Keizai Shimbun. 01/05/2013.
  14. Japan Times. 11/01/2013.
  15. Sankei Shimbun. 19/12/2012.


Translated by Darya Naydish, APIR Center

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