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Chinese-Japanese tensions are partly a corollary to the century-old bilateral animosity beginning with the Sino-Japanese War of 1894.
However, China has historical animosities with many other countries too, including Great Britain, France, Russia, and the United States, yet none has matched the one with Japan in its intensity and explosiveness as witnessed in the last five years.
In fact, 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.-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 manufacture a crisis to depict Japan as a revisionist nation dedicated to reviving its fascist past and imperial glory that inflicted great harm to both China and the United States during World War II. To do this, China must also convince the U.S. that Japan is unremorseful over its wartime crimes.
Therefore, the ultimate 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 outcome will further embolden China to be more cantankerous, and raise the tension levels until Japan surrenders to Chinese territorial demands, thus jeopardizing the U.S.-Japan defense alliance and 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 Sino-Japanese tensions as China will no longer test America’s resolve and strategic bottom line.