Sino-Japanese relations have recently been held hostage to territorial issues pertaining to the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Yet, security relations between the two countries are far more layered than conveyed by historical maps. China’s advances in nuclear submarines and surveillance, the U.S. stationing of an X-band radar in the south of Japan, expansion of ballistic missile defense cooperation, and potential shifts in extended deterrence are all core factors impacting Sino-Japanese ties.

In the fourteenth session of its “Arms Control Seminar Series,” the Carnegie-Tsinghua Center for Global Policy brought together four experts from Japan and four experts from China, along with a panel of Nuclear Threat Initiative board members, to discuss Sino-Japanese strategic relations. Carnegie-Tsinghua Director Paul Haenle introduced the event and Carnegie’s Lora Saalman moderated.

Domestic and International Factors

Sino-Japanese territorial and nuclear issues must be viewed from both domestic and international vantage points, noted one Japanese expert. Arguments made to assuage domestic audiences can lead to strained relations with external players. In this Japanese expert’s view, many of the tensions now coming to the fore between Beijing and Tokyo can be traced to China’s rise and its attempts to change the status quo. He added that these tensions with Japan are not unique, as China faces them with a number of its neighbors.

Territorial Legacies

  • Domestic Audience and Nationalism: Several Japanese participants cited the importance of domestic audiences when it comes to Sino-Japanese territorial issues. One noted how external factors have become an excuse for recent domestic protests and even violence, looting, and vandalism, particularly within China. Another Japanese expert explained that this outpouring of nationalism has a much more lengthy history that extends back to World War II. The greater concern, he argued, is the long-term impact of nationalistic displays on Sino-Japanese strategic relations. Several Japanese participants asserted that opposition parties and media also play a vital role in shaping perceptions within both China and Japan, often skewing the reality of Sino-Japanese relations.
  • A U.S. Role in the Disputes: A Japanese expert emphasized that China’s claims to the Senkaku islands and the Scarborough shoal are part of a larger attempt to encircle Taiwan. The danger, in her view, is that such a strategy could make U.S. military intervention “inevitable” in the event of a crisis. One Japanese expert also highlighted concerns over the reliability of U.S. security commitments to Japan, while a Chinese expert pointed to the U.S. pivot toward the Asia-Pacific as a challenge to China.
  • Legal Precedence: A Japanese expert suggested that Japan would be unlikely to bring the East China Sea territorial dispute before the International Court of Justice; however, if Beijing were to do so, Tokyo would not be likely to object. A Chinese participant countered that the primary issue remains Japan’s unwillingness to recognize that a territorial dispute even exists. He added that since the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea lacks a provision on ownership of territory, internationally recognized norms are difficult to establish. In response, a Japanese expert noted the importance of not exaggerating territorial issues between the two countries, as this can easily damage overall Sino-Japanese relations.
  • Confidence-Building Measures: A Japanese participant advocated engaging in confidence-building measures and conflict prevention between China and Japan, such as mutual notification of shipping routes and the conclusion of an agreement for non-use or non-unconventional use of force, such as with fishing boats. Several audience members suggested the formation of an international mechanism for resource exploration in disputed maritime zones. They argued that this would serve as a means to mitigate speculation over the wealth of these stores and potentially even provide a framework for portioning out resources among the various claimants. A Japanese expert stressed that ultimately the territorial issue is peripheral when it comes to fostering stability among China, Japan, and the United States.

Nuclear Directions

  • U.S. Role and Extended Deterrence: Recent nationalism, stoked by the territorial dispute and China’s military advances, could embolden those in Japan seeking strengthened U.S. extended deterrence or even Japanese pursuit of nuclear weapons, argued one Japanese expert. He added that changes in U.S. policies to reduce its role for nuclear weapons have contributed to questions over U.S. commitment to extended deterrence. In his view, this has led to a “strategic debate” within Japan, as China improves its nuclear and military capabilities. One U.S. expert noted that extended deterrence in China is largely viewed as a nuclear issue, often missing the conventional military dimension.
  • Inherent Contradictions and Policy: One of the Chinese analysts argued that recent reports on enhanced U.S.-Japan missile defense cooperation and the stationing of an X-band radar in the south of Japan undermine China’s overall nuclear deterrent. Such efforts also reinforce the role of nuclear weapons as security guarantors for Beijing, weakening U.S. and Japanese claims of support for nuclear reductions, much less nuclear disarmament, he added. He highlighted an inherent contradiction in Japan’s decision to phase out nuclear power, while it retains reprocessing capabilities that could be used for nuclear weapons production. A U.S. participant responded that there is also a tension in Chinese arguments condemning the U.S. nuclear umbrella for Japan, while at the same time expressing concern over Japan’s potential pursuit of nuclear weapons.
  • Building a Mechanism for Nuclear Talks: One of the Chinese experts indicated that strategic talks between the United States and Japan demonstrate an increasingly close bilateral relationship and a shift toward sea denial and potentially even control. Contrasting the level of U.S.-Japanese interaction, a Japanese expert lamented the lack of a regularized and institutionalized Sino-Japanese mechanism for discussing nuclear issues. Without this, strategic stability between China and Japan will be difficult to achieve and domestic factors, like nationalism, are likely to have a greater impact on Japan’s deterrence posture. As such, he advocated increased dialogue on nuclear issues to mitigate the chance for small-scale crises to escalate.

Discussants: Jessica Mathews, Ted Turner, Sam Nunn, Joan Rohlfing, Des Browne, Charles B. Curtis, Rolf Ekéus, Eugene E. Habiger, Prince El Hassan bin Talal, Igor Ivanov, Ronald L. Olson, Hisashi Owada, William Perry, Nafis Sadik, Shirley Williams, Deborah Rosenblum, Page Stoutland, Corey Hinderstein