Strategika

Chinese-Japanese Tensions and Its Strategic Logic

Monday, November 10, 2014

The recent tensions between China and Japan are threatening to bring the world’s top three economies—the United States, China, and Japan—into a major armed confrontation. There is little doubt that the tensions are related to China’s rise as a global economic power with a formidable military willing to challenge the existing security arrangements and the geopolitical status quo in the Asia Pacific region. Japan, as Asia’s reigning leader of global influence and with its strong alliance with the West, especially the United States, bears the brunt of communist China’s revisionist challenges and provocations; if China wants to be the hegemon in the region, Japan must be reduced to a lesser status and its ties to the West broken into insignificance.

The Three Key Points of Contention

However, what is obvious and generally true is not always recognized as such by China. These tensions are often framed by Beijing in a historical, rather than geopolitical, context that broadly entails three major issues in order to legitimize China’s ongoing provocations against Japan.

The first is the territorial dispute over the sovereignty of the Senkaku Islands, known in China as Diaoyudao. The second is the degree to which Japan has demonstrated remorse over its wartime aggression and atrocities against China, or whether Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s conservative Cabinet is striving to revive “Japanese militarism and fascism.” And the third is the history textbook controversy alleging that Japan is deliberately whitewashing its expansionist and militarist past.

Let’s have a closer look at each of China’s three historical grievances.

The Senkakus had always been claimed by Japan. Since the end of World War II, the U.S. military had occupied these small islands, and administered them until the Nixon Administration returned them to Japan in the early 1970s. No governments, including those of China, Taiwan, Japan, and the U.S., had ever challenged Japanese sovereignty over the Senkakus until the eve of America’s handover to Tokyo, when Taiwan’s Chinese Nationalist government sent Tokyo a note on July 20, 1970, seeking clarification as to whether the Senkakus, known in Taiwan as Tiaoyutai, were part of the Ryukyu island chain, which stirred up an argument between Taipei and Tokyo.

The U.S. government had always assumed that the Senkakus were part of Japanese territory, even paying rent to the Japanese owner of a Senkaku island for using it as a bombing range. Yet not willing to upset its Asian allies, the U.S. set up a “Tripartite Committee” consisting of Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea to meet in Seoul on November 12, 1970 to peacefully resolve the Senkaku issue between Taipei and Tokyo.

The Chinese communist government in Beijing had not challenged Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus until this Seoul Tripartite Committee meeting that included Taiwan as a legitimate government of “China.”

“The Seoul meeting triggered the 3 December 1970 PRC [People’s Republic of China] accusation that the joint development plan was in reality a trick instigated by Japanese militarists, aided and abetted by ‘the Chiang Kai-shek bandit gang and the Pak Jung Hi Clique,’ and whose purpose was the plundering of the seabed and undersea oil resources of China and Korea,” a thorough 39-page CIA research report, dated May 1971, concluded.1

That was the first time the Beijing government disputed Japan’s sovereign right to the Senkakus. Cartographic publications prior to 1970 in China, Taiwan, Europe, and the Soviet Union had all given Japan the ownership, according to the 1971 CIA report.

In other words, China’s challenge to Japan’s Senkaku ownership is not based upon historical facts, but on Beijing’s problem with Taipei’s right to represent “China” in order to claim these islands from Japan. And China, of course, claims complete sovereignty over Taiwan.

The crux of the second issue between China and Japan, i.e., Japan’s apologies for its wartime aggression and atrocities, is not that Japan has not apologized enough, but whether these repeated apologies are regarded by China as “sincere.”

The fact is that since the 1950s, various Japanese government officials, mostly prime ministers, foreign ministers, and parliamentary leaders, but also including the emperors, have apologized on solemn occasions more than 50 times to nations, particularly China, for Japan’s colonial and wartime atrocities.2 Almost all of these apologies were expressed with words such as “deep remorse,” “heart-felt sorrow,” “deeply reproaches itself,” and “profound regret.”

In addition, Japan has never shied away from its obligations to pay fully war reparations to all nations, as guided by international treaties and regulations. In fact, in 1972, the Chinese government voluntarily renounced any claim for Japan’s reparations from World War II in exchange for Tokyo’s recognition of Beijing as the legitimate Chinese government,3 but Japan went on to provide China with enormous economic and financial aid anyway in the ensuring three decades, a key factor in jump-starting China’s current economic boom.

At present, China is playing the “sincerity” card adroitly because there really is no tangible way of proving whether an apology is sincere or not, subjecting Japan to the impossible situation of “damned if you do, damned if you don't.”

The surest sign of Japan’s remorse perhaps can be found in the irrefutable fact that post-war Japan has been transformed thoroughly into a democratic, innovative, affluent, generous, and peace-loving nation that has not fired a single shot in 70 years against anyone.

The third issue plaguing Chinese-Japanese relations is the history textbook controversy. The key factor here is the proportionality of Japan’s right-wing sentiment whitewashing its militarist past.

Unlike China, Japan’s government does not write the history textbooks for elementary and high schools. Instead, after the end of World War II, Japan adopted a system of encouraging private publishing companies to write textbooks with Japan’s Ministry of Education approving the books’ circulation to avoid any extremist effort to mislead and factually misrepresent history. However, an important catch here is, unlike in China, every Japanese school board has the final say in adopting textbooks for its schools. Over the decades, several extremist textbooks, by both the extreme Left and the extreme Right, have been tossed out by the government as factually misleading.

Currently, all but one of the 8 approved Japanese history textbooks are accepted by a great majority of Japanese schools as fair and factually accurate. The exception is the “New History Textbook” published in 2000 by the conservative group “Japanese Society for History Textbook Reform,” which downplays Japan’s imperial aggressions and its consequences.

Vehement official protests and violent anti-Japan demonstrations in China and South Korea continue on this issue, despite the fact that less than 1 % of all of Japan’s schools have selected and are using the controversial textbook—in 2001, the first year it was ready for adoption to schools, 0.039% of all schools in Japan chose this right-wing history book, and that number has not changed much to this day.

Japan is a democracy whose underlying principle is pluralism, allowing different voices to be heard. The overwhelming majority of Japanese have rejected the voices of historical revisionists. To complain about the insignificant proportion of these voices reflects China’s political culture of intolerance and demand for intellectual unanimity.

To Become the Owner

If these three key points of contention cannot adequately explain the real reason for the ongoing Chinese-Japanese tensions, what is it then?

The current tensions with Japan are for the most part manufactured by Beijing not as a genuine expression of historical grievances, but as a shrewd geopolitical calculation aimed at a different target: the U.S. and the U.S.-led alliance in Asia Pacific whose bedrock foundation is the U.S.-Japan defense cooperation.

China has spared no effort to split that foundation to isolate Japan from the U.S. and vice versa. To do that, China must create a crisis that depicts Japan as a revisionist nation dedicated to reviving its fascist past and imperial glory that inflicted great harm on both China and the United States during World War II. To do this, China must also convince the U.S. that Japan remains unremorseful over its wartime crimes.

China’s strategic culture has been heavily influenced by an unusual devotion to geopolitical realism that matured more than 2,300 years ago during the historical period defined by historians as the Warring States era. The most salient realist strategy collection favored by the Chinese Communist government is the “Thirty-Six Stratagems” popularized by the Beijing government in 1961.4 It provides good explanations for China’s entanglement with Japan and China’s real intentions.

Chapter 4, “Chaos Stratagems,” is one which calls for “Befriending a distant state [the United States, in this case] while attacking a neighbor [Japan],” based upon the assumption that neighbors are usually enemies and distant states can be better allies.

But in this case, befriending the U.S. is only a means to destroy Japan. The very next stratagem calls for “borrowing the resources of an ally [the U.S.] to attack a common enemy [Japan]. Once an enemy is defeated, use those resources to turn on the ally that lent you them in the first place.”

And the ultimate Chinese objective lies in another strategy in the collection that’s known as “Make the host and the guest exchange roles” tactic—“Usurp leadership in a situation where you are normally subordinate. Infiltrate your target. Initially, pretend to be a guest to be accepted, but develop from inside and become the owner later.”

“To become the owner” thus is the real impetus for China to create the current Chinese-Japanese tensions that seeks to replace the U.S. as the current “owner” in the Asia Pacific region and beyond.

Therefore, the trajectory of the current Sino-Japanese tensions rests entirely on one of these two scenarios: 1. The U.S. buys China’s propaganda and continues its current “engagement with China at any cost” approach to damage Japan’s confidence in the bilateral alliance. This will further embolden China to be more cantankerous, raising the tension levels until Japan surrenders to Chinese territorial demands. The result will be to jeopardize the U.S.-Japan defense alliance, thus fulfilling a Chinese strategic objective; or 2. The U.S. stands firm with Japan in rebuffing China’s attempt to drive a wedge between Washington and Tokyo, which will greatly reduce the Sino-Japanese tensions as China will no longer test America’s resolve and strategic bottom line.

By choosing option 1, the United States will lose its preponderance of influence existing since the end of World War II, erode Japan’s confidence in the alliance, and force Japan to move more independently to forge alliances with more reliable partners that see China as a common threat, including India, Vietnam, or even Russia.


1. Central Intelligence Agency, “Intelligence Report, The Senkaku Islands Dispute: Oil Under Troubled Waters?” (May, 1971). Accessed November 10, 2014.

2. Wikipedia, “List of war apology statements issued by Japan”. Accessed November 10, 2014.

3. Exploring Chinese History, Politics: Government Documents, “Joint Communications Between Japan and China”. Accessed November 10, 2014.

4. Wikipedia, “Thirty-Six Stratagems”. Accessed November 10, 2014.

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