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Japan 2015: Confronting East Asia’s Geopolitical Game of Go

This essay focuses on the mounting geopolitical tensions around the South China Sea so as to gauge Japan’s growing assertiveness in foreign and security policy there. It defines regional strategic interaction in 2015 along the lines of a «game of go» (known as go or igo in Japan, and as weiqi in China): China calmed the situation in the East China Sea in the face of Japan’s economic and military-diplomatic pushback, but it has refocused its energies to building massive constructions on disputed coral reefs and rocks in the South China Sea’s Spratly Islands. Key events of 2015 hinted at the insufficiently noted drivers behind Tokyo’s response to Chinese actions in the South China Sea. This study argues that the new US-Japan security guidelines and the Abe government’s security laws have sown the seeds for a progressive institutionalization of Japan’s higher military profile, because these norms granted the United States leverage vis-à-vis Japan.

Finally, the essay analyzes the state of Sino-Japanese relations throughout 2015 to find little-appreciated conciliatory overtures that nonetheless clashed with progressively heightened military and constabulary activities. In that spirit, it analyzes the 14 August Abe Statement and accompanying exegesis in order to stress the Janus-face quality to the Sino-Japanese cold peace.  In conclusion, the essay pits the logic of power politics against liberal theories of international relations to find that international economic initiatives in 2015 clearly favored strategic and geopolitical imperatives over economic considerations. The essay concludes with an assessment of regional stability, finding mounting turbulence in the short-to-medium term.

  1. Introduction

The year under review witnessed the indisputable centrality of geopolitics in the East Asian landscape. As recounted in last year’s essay, China somewhat calmed down the situation in the East China Sea in the face of Japan’s economic and military-diplomatic pushback. Confronted with Japanese and US resolve over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands standoff, Beijing refocused its energies to building on coral reefs and rocks in the hotly disputed Spratly Islands, in the South China Sea.  But it did so while keeping Japan busy with aircraft and vessel incursions around the Senkaku Islands and through a newfound politico-economic synergy with Russia. Moreover, China started to eye the consolidation of its naval facilities in the Indian Ocean and beyond to secure its sea lanes.

In other words, strategic interactions started to resemble a «game of go» (known as go or igo in Japan, and as weiqi in China), where Xi Jinping’s China jostled for position on the regional chessboard to prevent encirclement and, if possible, to secure its primacy.[2] The South China Sea (SCS) became the core playground, and the many man-made islands there resembled go’s playing pieces, the «stones». While China was catching up with other claimants’ land-filling operations, the sheer quantity of its efforts risked turning those waters into a Chinese inland sea, as hinted by a Chinese navy commander’s controversial statement: «The South China Sea, as the name indicates, is a sea area that belongs to China».[3] In fact, with time China could eventually claim the entirety of the seas within the so-called Nine Dash Line – including those areas that overlap with the Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs) of other littoral states.[4] Geographic misconceptions aside, the logic was straightforward: as China’s power grew, so did its desire to secure its immediate neighborhood and critical Sea Lanes of Communications (SLOCs). At the same time, its appetite to expand its maritime spheres of interest also grew. By July 2015, China reclaimed at least 8 square kilometers of new land at seven different locations. Within 18 months, Chinese man-made islands in the SCS dwarfed those built by other claimants by both size and scale.

In other words, China’s quest for territory, honor and status over disputed islands coincided with the 21st Century power transition and the broader strategic game in the East and South China Seas. And in 2015 Japan confronted a multipolar post-Cold War regional order premised not only on China’s staggering, if bumpy, ascendance to regional hegemony, but also on the relative decline of the US, whose commitment to its ally’s security cannot be taken for granted indefinitely. Indeed, China’s smaller neighbors, including Japan, advanced more assertively their maritime interests, but in a way reflective of their own insecurity; they advanced their claims also in light of the limited «window of opportunity» of the early 2000s, a period of flux where US military aegis and power projection remained unmatched by China’s military might, though increasingly deterred by its naval and military presence. In fact, China’s neighbors were sometimes the first to adopt a more proactive stance, but China behaved with a «reactive assertiveness».[5] For these reasons, the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Spratly Islands disputes functioned as cognitive transference of the broader undercurrents of regional power transition. Thus, China’s massive land-filling operations in the South China Sea will render its smaller neighbors helpless vis-à-vis a hegemonic China; if Beijing enforces its claims following a decade or so of growing economic and military leverage.

With an eye on the South China Sea grid, Beijing safeguarded its continental backyard through deepened partnerships and new economic initiatives. A region-wide dependence on oil imports from the Middle East and Africa gradually extended the go chessboard beyond the Western Pacific to include the Indian Ocean, where competition between India and China was intensifying. Yet, in 2015 Chinese military and coastguard forces were concentrated in the East and South China Seas, because Beijing’s assertiveness was informed by both diffuse irredentism and cool strategic thinking. Strategy-wise, Chinese analysts feared that the island barrier running north from Borneo to the Philippines, Taiwan and Japan restricted the People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) and obstructed its access to the Pacific.[6] Thus, China needed to step up its naval presence within the so-called «first island chain» to better confront those key naval powers able to rein in China’s maritime advancement: the United States and Japan.[7] In this context, China continued its naval and aerial engagement in and above the East China Sea ‒ thus providing the opportunity to raise its tempo again in the future both to bolster the legal foundations of its claim over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and to distract Tokyo from intervention elsewhere. As per the strategic logic of the game of go, China’s engagement in the East China Sea and its constabulary build-up reminded Japan of the risks of stretching out its naval presence to distant Southeast Asian waters.

After all, the SCS is of paramount importance to the global economy and to maritime powers such as Japan and China. Trade that flows through the SCS can be diverted to other waterways, like the Lombok or Australian Straits, without much loss; at the same time, China and Japan’s SLOCS are effectively indivisible, at least in the South China Sea and beyond. What threatens Japan’s SLOCS also threatens China’s. Moreover, in the aftermath of the nuclear disaster of 11 March 2011, Japan’s post-Fukushima energy security increasingly relied on imported natural combustibles such as oil; and 88% of Japan’s oil imports passed through the Strait of Malacca.[8] Yet, post-war Japan traditionally played a low key politico-military role in securing these SLOCs on the basis of two fundamental factors: the relative lack of concern among regional players about the nature of China’s ascent ‒ compounded by US military primacy and reliable security commitments, and Southeast Asian states’ deep-held suspicion of Japan’s military involvement. In 1994, late Singaporean strongman Lee Kuan Yew still held the belief that «allowing Japan to send its forces abroad is like giving liquor to an alcoholic».[9]

The regional interplay changed in the first decade of the 21st Century. Washington’s military resolve gradually waned due to the United States’ involvement in the quagmires of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars, while China ruffled the feathers of several Southeast Asian states through a newfound assertiveness. Beijing now aimed at securing its «core interests», which possibly included the whole South China Sea. China traditionally made use of this wording with reference to Taiwan, Tibet and Xinjiang, but Chinese officials started to apply it also to disputed territories in the East and South China Seas. By 2010, China began to widen the definition of the term: an ambiguous stance reiterated in private conversations with US officials was, possibly, becoming official government policy.[10] Thus, on November 3 2015, Minister of Defense Chang Wanquan became the highest ranking Chinese official to unequivocally refer to the SCS as China’s «core interest»; it was significant that he did so while meeting his US counterpart, possibly an indication that Chinese policymakers increasingly understood Washington’s resolve as a paper tiger.[11] Thus, with greater power came greater confidence, and the Chinese elite gradually gravitated in favor of abandoning Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile foreign policy strategy (tao guang yang hui).

Along with Chinese assertiveness and US fatigue, Premier Abe Shinzō’s quest for a strong Japan and Washington’s increased reliance on its regional ally for the preservation of the wobbling regional status quo drove Japan’s security renaissance. Thus, in early 2015 the Abe government agreed to a set of new security guidelines governing the bilateral alliance and rammed through the Diet the contentious security laws that fleshed out ways for Japan to exercise collective self-defense. Concretely, these laws lifted Japan’s restrictions over military support to friendly forces when the situation endangered Japanese security, as defined in the broad sense. As a consequence, by mid-2015 Japanese lawmakers started to sell the SCS as a vital sea lane mired by Chinese expansionist claims, as part of the rationale for the right for collective self-defense. Thus, Japan was ready to share the alliance burden and, if push came to shove, add its military might to the US-led deterrence mix in the SCS. While operations would be limited to non-combat roles, Japanese officials signaled to China that if it did not soften its growing assertiveness in the Spratlys, Japan’s military would go beyond its usual geographic scope of action. The Abe government demonstrated it was a keen player of the East Asian game of go.

Scholars have emphasized the Abe-centered ideological factors behind Japan’s proactive security posture.[12] Other authors, instead, have stressed continuity and altogether downplayed the implications of Abe’s security reforms.[13] Through an analysis of the momentous history of 2015, this essay argues that Abe’s success in endowing Japan with the right of collective self-defense planted the insufficiently noted institutional seeds that were already forcing Tokyo to a more decisive military profile. For that purpose, in addition to China’s assertiveness and Abe’s taste for power politics, the essay details the deepened leverage enjoyed by the United States over Japan’s low key military involvement in the SCS. In turn, Japan’s direct engagement in South China Sea issues called China’s tactical accommodation bluff against Japan, although the bilateral cold peace continued throughout the year under review.

In order to present a historical overview of 2015 through these lenses, the first section highlights the nature of the new US-Japan security guidelines and of Japan’s security laws. The section concludes by pointing at the resilience of Abe’s domestic political mandate, widespread demonstrations notwithstanding. The second section gauges the timid Sino-Japanese political overtures witnessed in 2015 against the backdrop of a region increasingly defined by the logic of power politics. A thorough analysis of the government-backed 14 August Abe Statement to commemorate the end of World War II highlights the Janus-like quality of the Sino-Japanese cold peace, which is also reflected on the Chinese side; the Statement testified to a working-level political agreement to move bilateral relations forward, but its language signaled resolve against what Tokyo understood to be a revisionist China bent on asserting its regional dominance. Indeed, the major international economic initiatives finalized by Beijing, Tokyo and Washington in 2015 testified to an ongoing geopolitical rivalry between China and the two major regional players. In light of these events, the essay concludes with an assessment of the prospects for regional stability in the medium term.

  1. Deepening the US-Japan alliance: Mr. Abe goes to Washington

On April 26 Abe Shinzō made a historical week-long trip to the United States. His state visit to Washington D.C. was marked by initiatives of relevance for the future of Asia-Pacific security. Fifty-five years after Prime Minister Kishi Nobusuke’s tortuous ratification of the US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security, Kishi’s grandson undersigned new wedding vows with his American counterpart. This was a necessary step to allow Japan to play a bigger military role – an explicit component of Abe’s security agenda. In addition, the Japanese and United States governments agreed to tame an assertive China by taking a more dynamic military stance. In that spirit, deeper security ties and interoperability with Washington and like-minded maritime states in the Asia-Pacific would have increased the coercive tools at Tokyo’s disposal vis-à-vis Beijing. Thus, on the occasion of the Security Treaty’s Emerald anniversary, the US and Japan agreed to new security guidelines, an addendum to the new Security Treaty that altogether avoided a divisive ratification process.

The new guidelines fleshed out the two allies’ new responsibilities: a more coordinated joint command, interoperability and modernization of their respective armed forces, with the possible inclusion of other US allies, such as Australia. Strengthened by Abe’s security reforms and the July 2014 constitutional reinterpretation that endowed Japan with the right of collective self-defense, Tokyo would be on the frontline of its territorial defense and assume responsibility for logistical and military support to US and friendly forces on a global level. At the same time, these activities were limited to non-combat operations and, in all likelihood, to the East Asian region. Japan’s greater contribution to regional security would have nonetheless upgraded the US-Japan alliance to a more equitable one. China was the target of these new nuptial vows.

Indeed, diplomatic propriety mandated the two governments to reiterate that the guidelines did not aim at a specific target country. But China was the elephant in the room that was responsible for the camaraderie between the Obama-Abe odd couple. In fact, Obama and Abe asserted that «State actions which tended to undermine respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity by attempting to unilaterally change the status quo by force or coercion, would pose challenges to the international order».[14] In a similar way, Abe’s historic speech to a joint session of the US Congress ‒ «Toward an alliance of hope» ‒ never actually used  the «C word», but implicitly identified China through the clear enumeration of the alliance’s aims: peaceful resolution of international disputes, respect of international law, democracy, human rights and the like.[15] Subsequently, Abe’s 2015 visit to the United States signaled to Beijing an unwavering, newfound synergy between Tokyo and Washington.

As recounted in last year’s essay, the right of collective self-defense would  be limited to aiding friendly countries under attack,  when said-attack threatens «Japan’s survival and poses a clear danger to fundamentally overturn people’s right to life, liberty and pursuit of happiness (sic)».[16] Many Japan security watchers ignored this cumbersome definition under the deep-held belief that the fundamentals of Japanese security will be constant: Tokyo would engage in military operations only when its survival is in peril. But this is not exactly the case. While Japan would likely be involved in non-military operations, the deployment of its armed forces could well go beyond the survival of physical persons to include the safeguard of energy supplies and national assets when these pose a «clear danger» to Japan. This interpretation is key to understanding the significance of Abe’s security bills and was the necessary prelude to Japan’s more active involvement in the SCS. At any rate, even a restrictive interpretation of the new legislation could allow action in the South China Sea: after all, the Sea’s Hainan Island hosts a major Chinese submarine base, which includes vessels operating around Japan. That and the Japanese government’s growing insistence on the menace of a Chinese domination of the SCS implies that Chinese actions there can easily be interpreted as imperiling Japanese physical security.

2.1.   Japan’s mounting interest in the South China Sea and its logic

It is telling that in 2015 Tokyo signaled with greater intensity its active interest in balancing China’s growing clout in the South China Sea through non-combat military operations. By that summer, the Japanese media slowly gravitated towards alarmed denunciations of China’s construction of artificial islands. In the author’s view the news media echoed the government’s insistence and played a secondary role in shaping the domestic discourse. See, for instance, Newsweek Japan’s cover story: «China’s well-thought plan to seize the South China Sea» with its cover drawn by a famous Chinese cartoonist dissident, who fled to Japan.[17] Moreover, a search in the archives of the Japanese Diet’s deliberations points at lawmakers’ increased sense of urgency on the matter, in particular from spring 2015 onwards, possibly in connection with the deliberations over the security bills.

Finally, the annual Defense White Paper testified to Japan’s heightened alarm: «China continues to act in an assertive manner, including coercive attempts at changing the status quo, and is poised to fulfill its unilateral demands without compromise».[18] The 2015 White Paper included reference to «[China’s] rapid and large-scale land reclamation work in seven features in parts of  the Spratly Islands» and, at the insistence of conservative LDP lawmakers, it included aerial photographs of China’s sand-filling activities over the Johnson South Reef and the Subi Reef.[19] Japanese news somewhat echoed the alarmism insisted upon by the political elite,[20] but so did bureaucratic agencies: the Japanese Defense Ministry had already provided a graphic picture of a South China Sea dominated by China, with red-colored infographics that pointed at a «China menace».[21] It was not a coincidence that these publicity activities coincided with the Diet passage of the embattled Security Bills and the new US-Japan security guidelines, but China’s non-stop land-filling operations there contributed to the sense of danger. At any rate, the Abe government killed three birds with one stone: it reassured Washington of Japan’s newfound proactivity; it signaled resolve to Beijing; and it heightened alarm among the general public to facilitate passage of bold security reforms.[22]

In all likelihood China’s hawkish foreign policy actors ‒ and they likely included the ever-more powerful Xi Jinping (on Xi’s accommodating comments towards Japan vis-à-vis the propaganda department’s line see sections below) ‒ aimed at realizing the long-term vision of turning the South China Sea into an inland basin. The sheer number and progressive militarization of the artificial islands would have convinced China’s smaller neighbors through fait accompli of its regional primacy; together with its growing asymmetric warfare capabilities, these would have deterred the US from meddling in China’s immediate neighborhood. That is, Beijing was taking concrete steps to secure its own coastline and beyond, to enact a 21st Century, Chinese version of the Monroe Doctrine. Yet, there was a key difference between contemporary East Asia and 19th Century America: China’s neighbors were no «banana republics», or powerless client states of the regional hegemonic power. Moreover, the United States remained an engaged resident power: it committed its military might to the region and also bolstered the military capacity of smaller states to preserve a favorable regional multi-polarity, as demonstrated by Japan’s case. In that sense, the SCS stormy waters became ever more stormy, thanks to mounting waves of Sino-US strategic rivalry in 2015. In late October, the Obama administration’s decision to institutionalize «Freedom of Navigation» operations within the waters of China’s man-made islands in the Spratlys testified to testy relations between Beijing and Washington.

Indeed, Tokyo borrowed Washington’s language register to call for «Freedom of Navigation» (FON) operations. Accordingly, the United States would start sending naval forces within the 12 nautical miles of disputed ‒but progressively militarized ‒ rocks and reefs, to prove these were not islands. Washington used its military might to balance Chinese assertiveness and to make a point: the man-made «islands» were not entitled to broad territorial waters and an Exclusive Economic Zone. Instead, Japanese options probably entailed surveillance operations over the open seas around the disputed Spratly Islands to aid Washington and signal military resolve to China.[23] Thus, Tokyo’s bolder and broader security profile echoed a belated, but somewhat less conciliatory US posture and reflected the newfound clout of the Department of Defense headed by Ashton Carter. Back in May 2015 Washington allowed, for the very first time, CNN cameras on board a Navy surveillance aircraft to graphically display China’s island-building in the SCS. That is, the US government placed a bright spotlight on the likely militarization of China’s artificial islands; the video, which included enraged calls by PLA officials to drive away the US spy plane, signaled US commitment there.[24] Through its ambassador in Washington, China retorted with its own set of velvet accusations on several media outlets and a popular CNN talk-show. Here, Ambassador Cui Tiankai stated: «I wish the US would really do something to lower the temperature, to reduce the tensions there. So I hope people in the US will refrain from making all the coercive statements, will refrain from making all the coercive actions there».[25] In late October, Washington started, if cautiously, its «Freedom of Navigation» operations over reefs under Chinese control.[26]

As mentioned earlier, the timing of Washington’s emboldened resolve against Beijing suggests that the new US-Japan security guidelines and Abe’s security laws ‒ unorthodoxly promised ahead of time to a joint US Congress, and rammed through the Japanese Diet in the summer of 2015 ‒ were key pieces in the regional game of go. The subtle threat of Japan’s involvement in the SCS was an additional stick to deter China from mounting the escalation ladder vis-à-vis Washington, for instance through further militarization of the islands. Experts warned US policymakers about expectation gaps on Japanese commitment to alliance burden-sharing and discounted a major shift in Japan’s involvement in the SCS beyond capacity-building. However, the Japanese government was building momentum for direct action, possibly entailing surveillance operations. Japan’s higher military profile was not just an index of Chinese assertiveness but resulted from a mix of other factors: first, Abe’s idiosyncratic perception of Japan as a Great Power; second, Abe’s willingness to use military tools in order to strategically counter-balance China’s assertiveness more forcefully; third, Tokyo’s willingness to deepen military cooperation with strategic players in a scenario of common concern, China’s undisputed regional hegemony. Thus, as recounted in previous essays, Abe Shinzō’s long-term aim for Japan was the building of a coalition of China-balancing naval powers. Finally, and most importantly, Washington saluted and prompted Tokyo’s increasingly assertive signals and actions in the SCS. This was evident, for example, by the timing of the alliance’s new security guidelines: Tokyo and Washington controversially decided to sign the guidelines before the passage of the Japanese security bills. They did so to send a strong signal to Beijing.

Interestingly, analysts failed to notice Washington’s newfound leverage over Tokyo’s military posture which was embedded in the new security guidelines. Notably absent from the guidelines was any specific action over the islands disputed between Japan and China. Senior US officials and President Obama himself made it clear that the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands fell within the scope of the US-Japan treaty of mutual cooperation and security, by virtue of Japanese «administration» of the islands, but the US did not take sides on the territorial dispute and intended not to provoke other claimants, first and foremost China. As noted elsewhere, Washington «is likely to oppose the inclusion of specific guidelines over the islands in order to avoid entrapment concerns and to gain leverage over Japanese actions in dealing with the territorial issue».[27] I would push this reasoning a step further and argue that the US sought to gain leverage not only on Japan’s actions in the East China Sea, but on Japan’s contribution to alliance burden-sharing in the 2015 «upgrade» to the US-Japan Mutual Security Treaty: the guidelines lacked specifications over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and ‒ importantly and unappreciated ‒ on what qualifies and what does not as a «grey zone» scenario (i.e. Chinese coercive behavior that doesn’t constitute outright aggression).  In short, by feeding Japan’s insecurity Washington denied Japan leverage whilst gaining leverage itself in theaters beyond the Senkaku/Diaoyu. A clear example of the working of this logic is provided by the strategic ambiguity embedded in the Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS), where Article IV avoids spelling out US military commitment to rescue its allies in case of a contingency. Such a lack of specificity has nurtured Canberra’s fears of abandonment and, in light of such, an incredibly consistent commitment to all major US military operations since the inception of ANZUS in 1951. It is worth noting that Australia has wholeheartedly committed blood and treasure to its partnership with the US, even when said military operations were incredibly costly, if not altogether hazardous, to its own  national security.[28]  The same logic has also applied to Italy in instances such as its military involvement in Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003.[29] Thus, Japan signaled its resolution to put a halt to Chinese unilateral actions in the South China Sea ‒ through joint military exercises near those waters, low key surveillance operations, and a more assertive language register ‒ to pay the increasingly expensive insurance premiums for securing US extended deterrence.

Certainly the Japanese government’s determination to showcase military preparedness by engaging in non-combat activities away from the ECS was also calculated to increase Japan’s appeal as a security partner to regional players other than the United States. After all, Tokyo was adjusting its military posture to the harsh realities of a markedly more multipolar regional environment. It helped that an increasing number of China’s maritime neighbors in the South China Sea welcomed Japanese proactive behavior, but Tokyo’s effective counter-balance would have functioned especially with major Indo-Pacific players: the US, Australia, India and, possibly, Indonesia.  At the same time, the only external partner capable of credible deterrence against Chinese assertiveness in the East China Seas remained the United States. Its unmatched military capabilities over the safeguard of Japan’s security provided leverage to cajole Tokyo into accepting an increased share of the burden of the alliance in the South China Sea. For these reasons, the relative vagueness of US security commitments inspired its dependent allies, such as Japan, to go «above and beyond» of their own accord – that is, they proactively tried to prove their usefulness to Washington, and Washington facilitated such proactivity through vague security commitments.

For instance, evidence shows that the Americans asked for support in the SCS in unmistakable terms during a December 2014 meeting taking place in the Pentagon between then US Chief of Naval Operations, Admiral Scott Swift, and the Japanese Chief of Staff, Admiral Kawano Katsutoshi. Ministry of Defense (MOD) sources leaked the minutes of this meeting to the feisty Japanese Communist Party in the summer of 2015, but the news was interestingly given very small publicity; yet, the MOD confirmed the leakage and Swift’s requests testify to the afore-mentioned dynamics: «India is making a variety of port calls starting with Vietnam, on occasion of military exercises in the South China Sea. Ought Japan not make similar strategic port calls? Ought Japan not send a message through port calls also in Singapore and Kuala Lumpur?»[30] Would Japan easily concede to pressure from the US? An anonymous Japanese Ministry of Defense official confirmed Japan’s receptiveness when he asked, rhetorically: «Ought Japan not support the United States even by stretching its forces down in the South China Sea, in exchange for American support in the East China Sea?»[31] By October 2015, Japanese military planners confirmed a Vietnam port call scheduled for the next year.[32]

Interviews with US and Japanese policymakers implicitly unveiled the Realist quality and US expectations behind the deepened bilateral entente. Ambassador Richard Armitage praised the historic importance of Abe’s security reforms and highlighted the possibility that the right to collective self-defense would entail Japan’s future involvement in US wars, «but as it is quite clear, the Japanese will have to go through the Diet to get Diet permission».[33] At the same time, one of Abe’s advisors accepted arguments that stressed Japanese dependence on the United States. Asked about Japanese policymakers’ increased reliance on Washington for military deterrence and intelligence as well as Japan’s outright psychological dependence on the US, he agreed on the assessment, but discounted the risks of entrapment in US conflicts because of Washington’s post-Iraqi syndrome fatigue over military interventions abroad.[34] The Obama White House’s caution over Chinese activities in the South China Sea and elsewhere validates this argument, but an emboldened new US president could drag Japan into a military confrontation.

Thus, Japan’s words and eventual military deeds around the South China Sea were not necessarily in Tokyo’s own national interest. They came at the cost of further alienating China and ran the risk of embroiling Japan in a US-China confrontation. Yet, that China responded to Japan’s indication that it might become involved with an accusatory rebuttal showed that Beijing had taken a tactical decision to calm the situation in the East China Sea, while at the same time appeasing a more external-oriented Japan. Following a series of declarations by Japanese Navy officials, China responded by calling for Japan to «put an immediate end to the hyping up of the South China Sea issue [to] genuinely maintain the momentum of improving bilateral relations».[35] Japan’s signaling of military resolve in the area called Beijing’s tactical-accommodation bluff vis-à-vis Tokyo.

In light of these developments China continued to exert a degree of pressure over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, to which it began to send vessels on a more regular basis. A cursory look at the date of the incursions within the Japan-administered islands revealed that Chinese constabulary forces routinely entered the Senkaku waters every ten days.[36] But Beijing was always ready to up the tempo further, if needed. By the end of 2015, the East China Sea witnessed a new round of bilateral tensions, partly in connection with Japan’s growing involvement in the South China Sea.[37] The game of chicken over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands clearly developed into a game of go in the broader East Asian chessboard.

2.2. Japan’s domestic politics and the limits to Tokyo’s proactive posture[38]

Yet, Japan’s insular public opinion remained Abe’s Achilles’ Heel, because it prevented him from signaling credible Japanese deterrence against Chinese actions in the South China Sea. While the Abe administration progressively cemented Japan’s security stance, Japanese citizens still prioritized economic performance above any other policy issue. Moreover, Japanese voters were decidedly allergic to Abe’s security-oriented legislation. A variety of public opinion polls and well-thought arguments demonstrated that Japan still abided by deeply held norms of anti-militarism, in stark comparison with mounting Chinese nationalism.[39] If push came to shove in 2015, 71% of Chinese were reportedly willing to fight for their country, as compared with only 11% of Japanese: 5% fewer than 2010 and the world’s lowest percentage.[40] Moreover, a 10% decrease in the number of applicants to the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the marked increase of Defense University graduates refusing to enter into service, most likely resulted from increased sensibility to risk.[41] But was this risk only of China’s making? Evidence shows that Japanese voters disapproved of Abe’s 2013 visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, both in itself and also for the effect it had on stoking tensions with its neighbors. Accordingly, these statistics imply that even if Japan’s impressions of China had reached rock bottom,[42] they   neither translated into bellicose popular enmity which would have allowed swift passage of the security laws, nor did they prop up domestic support for the Abe government. Quite the opposite.

Thus, it would be misleading to say that the Abe administration was solely concerned with using the China danger during the fiercely debated Diet deliberations. Abe needed to dispel citizens’ concerns about his hawkish reputation and, to that end, the government reiterated through words and deeds that he was committed to «peace diplomacy» (heiwa gaikō) as the primary means of solving international disputes. Moreover, Abe capitalized on foreign endorsements to his security agenda in order to appeal to an insular public opinion. It referenced these very many endorsements ahead of the Diet deliberations over the security bills, including a major TV appearance in July.[43]

Abe’s push met vocal domestic resistance, which included street demonstrations around the Diet building. Public opinion polls dipped to a three-year low, but Abe was still able to renovate his mandate as LDP President in September 2015. Japanese citizens were also distrustful of the opposition parties, which were still unable to arrange a united front against the LDP-New Komeito majority. Abe wisely toned down his revisionist colors to cater to the sensibilities of a moderate Japanese public opinion: he did not hollow out the 1993 Kono and 1995 Murayama Statements, as many commentators feared. In fact, wording in the August 14 Abe Statement hinted at a bilateral Sino-Japanese effort to resume working-level relations. In addition, Abe sought a degree of stability in Sino-Japanese relations in order to convince domestic public opinion of his pragmatism.

In evidence of the success of Abe’s strategies and of the lack of political alternatives to his rule, two months following the contentious passage of the poorly explained security laws, the Abe government recovered public support above the 50% threshold. Domestic politics in 2015 testified to the relative stability of the Abe administration, but Japanese aversion to a more assertive security posture would have likely permitted only limited engagement in the South China Sea.

  1. The Sino-Japanese truce: toning down bilateral acrimony

But how did Japan and China achieve a very timid thaw in political relations in 2015? As recounted in last year’s essay, the vicious cycle of recrimination which the two governments initiated in September 2012 gained new heights in 2014. The Chinese propaganda apparatus had insisted on the so-called «history issue» as a mirror of Japan’s «revisionist» and «militaristic» behavior that acted in defiance of «the world order created after the victorious war against fascism». Illustrating the logic of the «propaganda dilemma», according to which both the Abe and Xi Jinping administrations refurbished the two states’ propaganda machines to secure their respective self-righteous narratives, Tokyo responded in full force to Chinese attacks. [44] On the occasion of Abe’s historic visit to the US, Tokyo staged a highly symbolic gesture of bilateral reconciliation between two war veterans during his speech to a Joint Congress.[45] The message resonated with Abe’s insistence on a «forward-oriented» outlook that stressed post-war Japan’s constructive role in international society and its «proactive contribution to peace», but the unspoken aim was to neutralize Beijing’s (and Seoul’s) politicized criticisms of Japan’s historical revisionism and showcase to international and domestic audiences that the «international community» was with Abe.

Following Abe’s successful state visit to Washington D.C., MOFA released an illuminating video titled «Communication and Reconciliation in the Post War Era», available in Japanese and several foreign languages: it stressed how the US, Australia, the Philippines and ASEAN nations have moved past the war legacy to the degree that «enemies that have fought each-other so fiercely have become friends bonded in spirit», an explicit reference to Abe’s speech to the US Congress.[46] Within the above-mentioned context, the documentary’s concomitant focus on Tokyo’s contribution to China and South Korea’s economic development highlighted Japan’s higher moral ground and, not by chance, the documentary showed footage of the Japan-China Friendship Hospital. This was a facility built thanks to Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA) that Chinese managers had recently rechristened as the China-Japan Hospital.[47]

Heated international crossfire throughout 2015 confirmed the resilience of the Sino-Japanese «propaganda dilemma». The continued exchange of accusations, for instance the inclusion of the Nanjing Massacre documents to the UNESCO Memory of the World Register, implied that the shallow détente resembled more of a political truce.[48] Yet, the underlying structural factor behind the international and domestic «propaganda wars» was the bilateral strategic mistrust at a time of power transition. In fact, China’s state-led media outlets insisted on presenting a Japan that had turned into a source of instability following the passage of its security laws. For that purpose, Chinese media availed themselves of distorted and fabricated testimonies of foreign experts. Two examples help illuminate this aspect. The first is a series of alleged statements by Professor Thomas U. Berger of Boston University carried by state-led news agency Xinhua: «Japan has mostly apologized to South Korea and South-East Asian countries, but no proper official apology was issued to China. I only found mentions of China in speeches, and none of them have for main purpose to give (sic) a genuine apology, mentioning the massacres, rapes, plunder, sexual slavery and biological experiment on live humans. The emperor has never apologized to China».[49] Yet, a request for the academic’s reaction revealed the scholar’s astonishment: «I was never interviewed for Xinhua and I said none of these things! This is absolutely extraordinary»![50]A similar episode involved Dr. Alessio Patalano of King’s College London, whose recorded comments on the significance of the 1945 Potsdam Declaration were later edited to imply that Japanese leaders were «turning back on their earlier promises (to forego force as a tool to solve international disputes)», contrary to  the interviewee’s intended message.[51] In a similar fashion, on the anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident, which marked the beginning of the Second Sino-Japanese War, Xinhua inaugurated a series of special websites devoted to the history issue; the website commemorating the 70th Anniversary of Victory of the Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War had sleek sections in foreign languages. Interestingly, however, its Chinese-language equivalent was somewhat sanitized.

Nonetheless, Japanese news media reports failed adequately to recognize that official Chinese-language news media had slightly toned down the propaganda offensive to pave the way for the 2015 shallow détente. While indulging in an examination of Japanese wartime atrocities, China’s propaganda apparatus shifted its focus away from the whole of Japan to focus, instead, on Abe and right-wing politicians as the loci of Japan’s supposed denial over its brutal historical legacy.[52] Strengthened by his new-found domestic clout, in December 2014 Xi Jinping set the language register for the year ahead. His speech on the occasion of the newly-inaugurated Nanking Massacre Memorial highlighted the leitmotifs of the Sino-Japanese «propaganda wars», but with a more nuanced language register that was aimed at «setting aside hatred and not allowing the minority who led Japan to war affect current relations». The speech’s strongest passage endorsed the idea of the event’s remembrance but remained vague, and limited the scope of Japan’s responsibility: «Forgetting history is a betrayal, and denying a crime is to repeat a crime. Just because a handful of militarists in a particular nation set off an invasion; war is not a reason for us to hate this nation…but people shouldn’t at any time forget the brutalities and crimes committed by the invaders».[53] In fact, Xi’s tone during the Nanjing massacre memorial had markedly softened from his earlier remarks on the same subject.[54] In December 2014, China’s paramount leader emphasized his political will to partially mend political ties with Tokyo. The event confirmed the dynamics leading to the frosty Abe-Xi summit choreographed during the November 2014 APEC Summit. Indicative of the somewhat positive trend, Xi decided not to attend the 2015 Nanjing massacre celebrations.

Thus, on 22 April 2015, the more confident Abe-Xi handshake and bilateral summit on the occasion of the sixtieth anniversary of the Asian-African Conference in Bandung presaged the primacy of Chinese political and economic imperatives over historical sensitivities. In fact, senior Japanese officials revealed that China insisted on holding the meeting.[55] The rationale had been unveiled in the previous years’ analyses. First, the Abe government went for the Chinese Communist Party’s economic jugular from the very moment it initiated its expansionist monetary and fiscal policies under the rubric of Abenomics. These policies not only shielded Japan from Chinese economic retaliation, but presented a subtle «beggar-thy-neighbor» edge that boosted, if temporarily, Japanese domestic consumption and exports. [56] Moreover, the higher political risks and economic costs of doing business in China contributed to push investment away from the mainland; the Abe government’s frenetic Asian diplomacy certainly helped to diversify Japan’s Foreign Direct Investments (FDI) and to spearhead the redirection of Japanese businessmen’s investment away from mainland China. To be sure a Chinese economic slowdown greatly impacted on Japan too, as testified by a new technical recession in late 2015, but China’s intensifying woes deeply worried Chinese officials, who started to publicly acknowledge the risks to social, hence political, stability.[57] Noted US China scholars also started to ring alarm bells in light of the recent economic and political undercurrents there.[58] These dynamics constituted the undercurrents which prompted Premier Li Keqiang’s love calls to the Japanese business community following the successful summit with Abe on the fringes of the South Korea-Japan-China trilateral of 1 November 2015.[59] Second, China needed to buoy an increasingly anxious and militarily assertive neighbor.[60] Finally, as per the logic of the East Asian game of go, China pursued its tactical accommodation with Japan to refocus its energies on the South China Sea in the belief that Japan would remain  quiet.

And so, in May 2015 at a «China-Japan Friendship Exchange Meeting» held at Tiananmen Square’s Great Hall of the People, Xi Jinping made a surprise appearance to greet with considerable warmth, a 3,000-men strong delegation of private Japanese visitors with even more explicit conciliatory messages. Three years after his ascendance to power, Xi made his first, elaborate, official pronouncement on Sino-Japanese relations and China’s Japan policy. He aimed at reassuring Japan and preparing the domestic groundwork for a more timid détente when he recalled «the Chinese people’s profound generosity and infinite kindheartedness; in the immediate aftermath of the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance we have ‘repaid hatred with kindness’ (yi de bao yuan) and allowed the repatriation of over one million Japanese resident in China, [because] they were also victims of that war».[61] In other words, seventy years after the war Xi was insisting on the so-called «military-civilian dualism» (ni bunron) which was first expounded by Nationalist Party leader Chiang Kai-Shek, who held «the Japanese military clique as the enemy and not the Japanese people».[62] The speech signalled the willingness at the very top to raise public awareness of the importance of China-Japan relations, stress the positive aspects of Japan and encourage cultural exchanges and people-to-people contact. But the transcribed speech also hinted at Xi’s desire to turn the page, an intent made evident by repeated wording in favour of a forward-oriented outlook for Sino-Japanese relations. One passage embeds this positive message amidst calls for a proper understanding of history and it is worth citing in full: «China and Japan should, in the spirit of taking history as a mirror and looking into the future, jointly promote peaceful development, jointly boost friendship from generation to generation, and jointly create a good future for the development of both countries, so as to make contributions to peace in Asia and the world at large».[63] Xi’s personalized love calls to Japan also cleverly minimized the legacy of Imperial Japan in the wider context of hundreds of years of peaceful and fruitful interaction, rather than the 19th and early 20th Century’s unfortunate past. He emphasized Sino-Japanese exchanges throughout the ages: during the Tang era (618–907 C.E.), the 17th Century, the post-war period and the future. The Chinese government’s instrumentalist and selective use of Sino-Japanese history – trumpeted in this particular instance as a history of peace and prosperity – was evidence of Beijing’s need for a more conciliatory policy vis-à-vis Tokyo. The reprint of most of Xi’s «important speech» as the top news item of the Chinese Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, the Renmin Ribao, was indicative of Xi’s firmer political base back home.

At the same time, the Chinese media and propaganda apparatus was in full swing, making a great fanfare commemorating the 70th anniversary from the end of the war. Japanese reaction to the same was chilly and reflected the broader international and domestic structural problems rocking recent Sino-Japanese relations. As pointed out in last year’s essay, Japan’s domestic media came to stress the negative side of China’s words and actions, reflecting both governmental and popular distrust towards Japan’s giant neighbor. In 2015 the slow media reaction to Beijing’s more confident fence-mending overtures betrayed the lopsided nature of news reporting on all things Chinese. A clear instance was the widespread failure fully to appreciate Xi’s marked change of his language register in favor of Sino-Japanese friendship. In fact, most Japanese media tended to emphasize Xi’s limited criticism of the damage brought by historical revisionism: «the Chinese people cannot forgive words and actions that distort and beautify the history of Japanese militarist aggression». That most Japanese media ‒ including the government-friendly NHK ‒ highlighted the above passage at the expense of all the aforementioned overtures, and that virtually all of them had rendered the Chinese for «cannot allow» (burong) into the sterner worded «cannot forgive», was symptomatic of the media’s structural problems and of the underlying suspicion of China’s Janus-faced tactical accommodation.[64] At any rate, this event and its resonance in China’s official state-run media displayed clear willingness from the top to mend ties with Japan, even if only out of political and economic necessity.

At the same time, it is worth stressing that Xi was neither all-powerful nor willing to steer the domestic propaganda machine towards a meaningful détente. The above limited love calls were, in fact, a drop in an endless ocean of nationalist fanfare in this historical year, the very same fanfare that central and local governments had insisted upon since the flaring up of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands dispute in the summer of 2012. In other words, there were minor adjustments in the media discourse, but China’s change in tone needs to be taken in the context of continuing anti-Japanese sentiment.  Chinese traditional media dutifully emphasized criticism of Abe, rather than the whole Japanese polity, to pour cold water on an already incensed and nationalistic domestic audience. That is, it aimed at preparing the groundwork for a working level Sino-Japanese truce with the prospect of a deeper détente with Abe’s successor. Moreover, the Xinhua and CCTV websites devoted to the 70th Anniversary of the end of World War II stressed China’s «victorious» narrative compared to its markedly more «victimized» tone in previous years.[65] However, they continued to make the simplistic comparison between an unrepentant Japanese polity, with specific reference to right-wing politicians, and Germany’s penitence; a recurring reference to this was reflected in the websites’ layout and condensed in a documentary called «Truth and Denial».[66]

According to direct testimony from a European Union diplomat, in the run up to the 70th Anniversary celebrations the Propaganda Department Education Bureau flooded the city of Beijing with billboards advertising the Chinese Communist Party’s fight in the global war against fascism. These posters succinctly hinted at the dominant historical narrative of a CCP-led liberation. Here the Nationalist Party (Guomindang, GMD) was hardly mentioned, apart from «CCP and GMD cooperation» (guo gong hezuo), and the Allied forces barely figured, apart from intelligence cooperation and Japan’s signature of the instruments of surrender on the USS Missouri on  2 September 1945.  At the same time, careful reading of the dazibao and of the long red banners plastered over various sites in Beijing confirmed that China was now insisting on a «victorious» storyline, rather than a «victimized» one.[67] Moreover, the end of the seven-paged dazibao hinted at Beijing’s willingness to tone down present-day Sino-Japanese acrimony; it detailed Xi’s earlier speech to the China-Japan Friendship Exchange Meeting along with the Politburo Standing Committee’s visit on 7 July 2015 to the Anti-Japanese War of Resistance Museum. Yet, it was no mistake that the so-called «China Seven», the members of the Standing Committee of the CCP Politburo, were shown visiting a room devoted to Japanese atrocities committed on Chinese soil.[68] China was ready to move on but the state-sanctioned narrative made sure to pander to popular sensitivities.

In fact, on multiple occasions high-ranking Chinese government officials prioritized the history issue to reset Sino-Japanese relations. Xi’s statements during his April bilateral meeting with Abe made absolutely clear the need to cater to China’s historical sensitivities: «The history issue is a fundamental matter of principle, a matter that lies at the political foundation of China-Japan relations».[69] To these calls Abe Shinzō half-heartedly responded through his 14 August government-backed statement.

3.1.   The Sino-Japanese truce II: Abe’s «History Statecraft» and the Abe statement

As the Chinese and Japanese war of words over the history issue toned down but simmered throughout mid-2015, it looked as if the frosty Sino-Japanese rapprochement would come under considerable stress by late summer, when Japan and its Asian neighbors commemorated the 70 years since the capitulation of the Japanese Empire. As recounted, a new powerful stream of Chinese propaganda aimed at memorializing the second Sino-Japanese war presaged a testy season.

Yet, Abe and Yachi’s «history statecraft» followed the 2006 model, the year when Tokyo and Beijing inaugurated the Strategic Mutually Beneficial Relationship following a highly choreographed exchange of signals between the two governments. The key premise now, as then, was reciprocity: a conciliatory «Abe Statement» sought somewhat to assuage China’s historical sensitivities, but emphasized postwar Japan’s positive role and its further contribution to peace in line with the Premier’s ideology; in turn, Beijing ignored the lack of specific apologies (owabi) and echoed Japan’s forward-looking attitude towards resuming the moribund Japan-China Strategic Mutually Beneficial Relationship. MOFA’s short movie on post-war Japan-China relations had already hinted in mid-2015 at the way forward for bilateral relations, according to Tokyo.[70]

In turn, the Chinese authorities quietly watered down the overtly jingoistic aims of the newly established 3 September military parade. As of January 2015, according to a popular blogger writing for the Renmin Ribao social network, the purposes of the parade were to: «showcase China’s military strength; frighten Japan for the sake of maintaining the post-war order; unite the people’s confidence and pride; and showcase the PLA’s discipline».[71] By June 2015, however, these goals had turned into: «Showcase China’s determination to take the road of peaceful development; showcase its position of defending its national sovereignty; show its great sacrifices during the war; push forward the modernization of the PLA».[72] In all likelihood Chinese policymakers also understood the negative international spillover effects of its bombastic anti-Japanese campaigns, but it was too late: many Western governments decided not to send heads of governments to such bombastic celebrations.

Preliminary evidence suggests that Washington was pressing to bring about a degree of stability between Japan and its North-East Asian neighbors over the «history issue». Brad Glosserman, executive director of the US-based Pacific Forum Center for Strategic and International Studies think tank, testified to such pressure regarding the Abe Statement in an e-mail exchange: «I have been in meetings when I and others pressed government of Japan representatives to take that extra step and I have been told by US government representatives that they did the same».[73] As recounted in previous essays, similar US pressure contributed to a moratorium to the history-related acrimony between Japan and China starting with the first Abe administration, including a seven-year moratorium to the disputes over Yasukuni Shrine visits by sitting prime ministers. Washington’s aims were consistent throughout: policymakers wanted a stronger Japan, but not at the cost of entrapment into Sino-Japanese military or history issues-related brinkmanship.

At the same time, there was a key difference between 2006 and 2015: Japan was not negotiating from a position of undeniable politico-economic strength vis-à-vis China. China did not pursue a fuller accommodation towards Japan for this reason. By 2015, Chinese policymakers probably thought that time was on their side in the medium to long term, and they did not need to make considerable concessions to Tokyo, only buy time. Confident of Japan’s military potential, emboldened by the new US-Japan security guidelines and probably betting on China’s deepening economic woes, Abe was not interested in making meaningful concessions to China either.

At any rate, the history issue was a major hurdle in resetting a working level relationship and the Japanese and Chinese governments needed to find a working-level agreement to defuse it. In fact, since the history issue had become a matter of international and domestic politics, the Japanese government had set up a public advisory panel on the occasion of the August statement commemorating the end of World War II. This was the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century (abbreviated in Japan as «21st Century Advisory Panel»). Since previous statements suffered from substantial domestic rebuttals and lukewarm acceptance from Japan’s neighbors, the variegated advisory panel crafted a report that explicitly aimed at building domestic consensus and international support.[74] In other words, the report and accompanying statement constituted an implicitly political communication effort designed to reassure international and domestic audiences that «Japan’s post-war trajectory is based on a thorough reflection on its actions in the 1930s and the first half of the 1940s».[75] The international and domestic buzz surrounding the declaration of Japan’s conservative Prime Minister testified to the political need to dispel diffuse anxieties and win support for Japan and its leadership. These anxieties were all the more felt by Abe because of China’s earlier successes in putting the spotlight on the Premier’s ill-concealed revisionist colors, and in light of Abe’s main priority: passing the embattled security bills. As recounted earlier, the Obama administration interceded to avoid a new row between Japan and its neighbors and likely exacted promises from Abe on that front.

Thus, the end product was an overarching document that did not shy away from highlighting Japan’s «reckless war», «colonial rule» and «aggression», key words from previous Statements that aimed at assuaging the historical sensitivities of victimized neighbors, the United States and of progressive forces within Japan; in a jab against Abe’s and Japanese historical revisionists’ personal credo, the report spelt out that «it is inaccurate to claim that Japan fought to liberate Asia as a matter of national policy».[76] But it was evident that the commission fumbled over some definitions and details due to internal disagreement, possibly as a means of leaving room for politically-expedient ambiguity. For instance, in another passage the report contradicts the above-statement and panders to the revisionist readership:  «Whether or not Japan intended to liberate Asia, it did wind up promoting the independence of the colonies in Asia». Positive reception of the report’s language by newspapers spanning Japan’s political spectrum testified to such ambiguities: notoriously conservative Sankei Shinbun highlighted the latter passage, while progressive media outlets praised the inclusion of other key words, such as «aggression» (the translation used for shinryaku, more commonly translated as «invasion»).[77]

In fact, Japanese historical revisionists traditionally sought to minimize Japan’s responsibility. They euphemistically referred to aggression as «advancement» (shinshutsu) and denied that the colonization of Korea could be described as an invasion. For these reasons, the inclusion of «aggression» (shinryaku) appeared with reference to Japan’s encroachment into China and was accompanied by a cumbersome footnote that described the internal disagreement over its usage. Wording further on in the report highlighted the very same dynamic: «[There is a 1974] UN General Assembly Resolution on the Definition of Aggression, but (emphasis added) there are some who point out that the international community has yet to reach a complete consensus». This was another indication that the report was directed at the widest possible domestic audience at the cost of watering down its most conciliatory wording.

The report had a whole section that compared Japan’s historical reconciliation with those who had been victims of its aggression, and hinted at the way forward for Japan-China relations. Not by chance, this section echoed the Chinese government’s marked change of language register: «China has maintained ‘military-civilian dualism’ after the end of the war. As Premier Wen Jiabao stated in his speech before the Japanese Diet in 2007, China made clear its stance of appreciating Japan’s remorse and apology over the war, which was expressed in the Murayama Statement and the Koizumi Statement». Yet, two panel members usually close to Abe were against the use of «aggression» to define Japanese encroachment into China.[78] In exchange for Abe’s recognition of Imperial Japan’s culpability, China would drop requests for words of «apology» (owabi). Acting chair of the advisory panel Kitaoka Shin’ichi stressed that «what is important here is reflection, not apology. [because] Japan has apologized many times and the countries concerned have accepted in most cases».[79] It was time to reflect on Japan’s positive and negative legacy and turn the page.

Thus, the aim of Abe’s «history statecraft» was not full-fledged reconciliation, but tit-for-tat reciprocity that avoided the politicization of the history issue and altogether curtailed major provocations in the sensitive year of 2015. As recounted in last year’s essay, this likely meant avoiding a Yasukuni Shrine visit until the end of Abe’s mandate and the Abe Statement was a chess piece used by Beijing and Tokyo to sell a very timid cold peace. Yaming Tang, Head of the Society of Chinese Professors in Japan, testified to the logic of the Abe Statement: «Behind the scenes China has already agreed to specific wording in the Abe Statement, but the core message has been watered down to Abe’s personal message. In fact, the final wording will water down the Murayama and Koizumi Statements, but it won’t provoke China».[80]

For these reasons, on 14 August 2015, Abe was sending clear messages to China, when he stated that «we must squarely face the history of the past» and praised the tolerance of post-WWII China. The passage is worth quoting in full:  «How much emotional struggle must have existed and what great efforts must have been necessary for the Chinese people who underwent all the sufferings of the war and for the former Prisoners of War who experienced unbearable sufferings caused by the Japanese military, in order for them to be so tolerant nevertheless?» Abe was echoing Xi Jinping’s earlier reminder of Chinese generosity, one that «repaid hatred with virtue». These soothing words were diplomatic signaling at work; the aim being the resumption of a working-level relationship.

Moreover, it is worth noting that Abe did soften his historical revisionist credo. The use of so-called «key words» hinted at a political compromise at home. Members of his Cabinet were often affiliated with intra-LDP nationalist groups, some of which wholly misrepresented Imperial Japan’s acts of aggression as noble missions to liberate Asia.[81] Faced by mounting international and domestic pressure, Abe aborted earlier attempts to rescind or hollow out the Murayama and Kōno Statements. Concerning Imperial Japan’s legacy in Asia, the Murayama statement had become the gold standard of that contrition. This was certainly the case in China, and South Korea, but also among the vast majority of Japanese citizens. One public opinion poll confirmed the overwhelming popular desire to uphold the socialist Prime Minister’s statement.[82] For these reasons, and in the face of sinking approval rates due to the passage of the embattled Security Bills, Abe hinted approval of progressive forces and catered to the sensitivities of his coalition partner.

But Abe certainly watered down the spirit of previous statements because he was appealing to too many audiences: the US, China, and all of Japan, and that included the nationalists. During the highly-choreographed press conference that followed the Statement Abe provided journalists with the Statement’s exegesis. There he recognized the primacy of domestic considerations: «I wanted to write a statement that was shared by many Japanese, a statement that should be read as a whole and from a broad perspective».[83] For these reasons the statement toed the 21st Century Advisory Panel’s line, the «voice of history» in Abe’s own words, for even more politically-expedient ambiguity. For instance, whereas the then-controversial Murayama statement explicitly blamed Japan’s «colonial rule and aggression [in the not too distant past]», Abe pledged to renounce aggression and colonial rule in the future.[84] A few minutes later he explicitly linked «aggression» to the 21st Century Advisory Panel’s report, where the word referred to Japan’s encroachment of China into Manchuria. At the same time Abe was ambivalent on specifics: «it is historians’ responsibility to define what constitutes and what doesn’t constitute aggression».[85] That is, by Abe’s own unintended acknowledgement, the statement included ill-defined key words. Thus, the government-backed policy statement presented shaky historical foundations and its alleged author walked the tightrope of ambiguity in order to cater to the sensitivities of too broad a target on that front.

At any rate, and differently from the speeches given in Washington and in Jakarta at the 60th Asia-Africa Summit, Abe spelt out some of the keywords from previous declarations of contrition: «aggression», «colonial rule», and «apology». The domestic media agenda had set the words up as a litmus test to grade Abe’s statement against the previous ones. Thus, the cabinet-approved policy document emphasized «feelings of profound grief» and recognized the «unshakeable position» of past Japanese apologies, but Abe provided another piece of the puzzle when he said he abided by the «unwavering spirit of apology» (yuruginai owabi no kimochi) of previous declarations. Progressive media outlets positively reported the news, although the editorial bureau of the same outlets, such as Asahi Shinbun, sternly rebutted its line.[86] Abe had come a long way from his earlier, public disavowal of the 1995 Murayama Statement. On that occasion he had left the Diet Building with other MPs so as to impede its passage as a Diet Resolution through unanimous vote.[87] National and political interests contributed to preserving an ambiguous consensus on previous government declarations.

At the same time, the statement reflected Abe’s personal outlook. First, it betrayed his aspiration for Japan to outgrow what he understood as masochistic acts of contrition. An early draft of Abe’s initial posturing on the Murayama and Kōno statements opens a window to the Prime Minister’s «future-oriented» thinking. Given the documentary value of the roughly-sketched draft, one that allows a comparison between Abe’s personal ambitions in late 2012 and the realities of political compromise once in office, it is worth quoting in full:

«Do you follow through (tōshū), or not? Yes or no? Prime Ministers of Japan have been presented with simple binary options with regard to the Murayama and Kōno Statements. But History contains instances of glory and disgrace, instances to treasure with pride and instances to treasure as admonition. I can say only one thing: Japan intends to build relations with neighboring countries such as South Korea and China in order to share the fruits of prosperity. I am earnestly devoted to the future, because the Japan of 30 years from now will bring peace and prosperity and I intend to move forward and pursue these objectives with my heart and soul».[88]

Three years later, Abe’s pledge of looking to the future and his variegated, if ambiguous, overview of the past was intact in his Statement’s most-relevant passage: «We must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who had nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize. Still, even so, we Japanese, across generations, must squarely face the history of the past. We have the responsibility to inherit the past, in all humbleness, and pass it on to the future». In the summer of 2015, the main speechwriter would remain the same as for the afore-mentioned draft, and so too would the gist of the message. Abe-colors were on full display.

Secondly, the statement superficially echoed, almost verbatim, the Chinese government’s politically-charged calls for Japan to «squarely face the history of the past». But it did so with an implicit, if recurrent, desire to highlight the identity chasm between a virtuous post-war Japanese «Self» against an aberrant pre-war «Other» that often resembled present-day China. The present-day «Self» upheld the surrounding international order, while the pre-war «Other» challenged it. Abe’s introspection on the «mistaken road to war» taken in the 1930s sounded very much like a warning to Beijing, not least because of its added emphasis: «Japan gradually transformed into a challenger to the new international order that the international community sought to establish». The statement’s concluding passage confirmed the Premier’s insistence on the identity chasm rooted in the power politics of Sino-Japanese rivalry. Since the narratives highlighted in last year’s essay were clearly emphasized, the statement is worth citing in full: «We will engrave in our hearts the past, when Japan ended up becoming a challenger to the international order. Upon this reflection, Japan will firmly uphold basic values such as freedom, democracy, and human rights as unyielding values and, by working hand in hand with countries that share such values, hoist the flag of Proactive Contribution to Peace, and contribute to the peace and prosperity of the world more than ever before». China was certainly not a member of the club and, given its persistent refusal to go before international arbitration with its territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas, it started to look like a challenger of said «international order». The statement’s intriguing mix of soothing words and veiled antagonistic discourses confirmed, one more time, that Abe’s resolute stance was unwavering.

To sum up, the statement hinted that the Sino-Japanese détente was very timid indeed. It thoroughly underlined contemporary Japan’s identity as a peace-loving, rule-abiding state that upheld the status quo and that did not intend to resort to coercion. This was an implicit message to domestic and international audiences that there was a big difference between today’s Japan and China. Antagonism was alive and well. Together with the White House’s public endorsement of Abe’s words,[89] it became evident that the Sino-Japanese cold peace was staged on the solid, but rapidly shifting, tectonic plates of power politics.

  1. The Structural Picture: Enduring Rivalry in the Regional Game of Go

Although China and Japan staged a modest rapprochement, this did not alter the structural picture, characterized by deepening rifts in the military, economic and communication arenas. In fact, the mid-summer crescendo in the regional game of go triggered a new wave of negative Chinese propaganda that may have gone beyond the central government line. China’s state-run media was deviating from Xi’s line to lament a lack of specific wording of contrition in the upcoming Abe Statement: «because hansei (i.e. «self-reflection», but translated in English as «remorse») is not synonymous with owabi (i.e. «apology»). If Abe opts for that wording, his statement will constitute a serious dilution of the 1995 Murayama Statement offered on the occasion of the 50th Anniversary of the end of the war». The above editorial was all the more alarming because it was carried by the Renmin Ribao, and it did so when the Party leadership as usual retreated to the ritual secretive summer meeting at Beidaihe.[90] It is worth noting that the chasm between the quiet bilateral agreement and state-led propaganda preoccupied one of the members of Abe’s Commission on a Framework for the 21st Century. According to him, it looked as if Beijing was moving the goalpost for timid détente only one week before the landmark statement.[91] Yet, it was also true that Japan was unwavering in its commitment to deter and publicize Chinese assertiveness in the South China Sea. The August anti-Japan crescendo was also a reaction to Japan’s «meddling» in what China understood as its neighborhood. The logic of the regional game of go trumpeted shallow engagement in 2015.

Indeed, according to an influential Chinese academic based in Japan, who would later attend the September 3 parade, China was indeed accommodating but Japan was hardening its position. He qualified the Japanese government’s position over the SCS as provocation and lamented Japan’s increasingly rock-solid stance on the Senkaku Islands, including Abe’s decision to make repeated reference of these in school textbooks.[92] Yet, China’s continued presence in the East China Sea and its inauguration of a mammoth coast guard ship, the Zhongguo Haijing 2901, destined for that theater, indicated that Beijing was also unwilling to shelve the issue.[93] In addition, a bombastic new recruitment video for the People Liberation Army’s Navy was a powerful reminder of China’s maximalist stance over its multiple territorial disputes and of its hyper-nationalistic narratives.[94] According to a Council on Foreign Relations blog, the PLA was behind the release of a new computer-generated video on September 3, China’s Victory Day. The video had a telling title, «Battle to Capture an Island: a Full View of Chinese Military Strength»,[95] and it showed China’s crushing defeat of what looked like US military forces based in China’s proximity, seemingly on Japan’s Okinawa islands. China had no claims on the islands, but the Renmin Ribao did come up with an editorial in 2013 that disputed Japan’s sovereignty there.[96] That particular detail and the closing line to the short movie presaged a bumpy road ahead for the regional strategic game of go, where no party was willing to make substantial concessions: «We wholeheartedly love peace, but must be prepared for the likelihood of war. We respectfully and solemnly commemorate the 70th anniversary of the war against Japan». That they decided to commemorate it with a bombastic animated video in addition to a raw display of military artillery and marching soldiers was symptomatic of China’s underlying jingoistic attitude.

In other words, Beijing defused confrontations with an increasingly assertive Japan only halfheartedly. It was, however, quite possible that powerful opposition within the CCP was endeavoring to shake Xi’s qualified conciliatory stance vis-à-vis Japan in order to score political points and delegitimize his rule. Jiang Zemin’s notoriously anti-Japan «Shanghai faction» had proved a major foe against the accommodating Hu Jintao administration back in 2005 and it needed to consolidate power at home prior to introducing the 2006 détente.[97] In August Xi sent coded threats to Jiang through the Renmin Ribao to impede his meddling in Chinese politics.[98] At any rate, only time will tell what role Japan played in the intra-party factional turf wars following the 2012 nationalization. No matter how firm Xi’s grip on power looked from a distance, the Japan-bashing discourses proved incredibly resilient in this historical year, and the very same Xi Jinping administration’s earlier ignition of the «Japan-bashing» propaganda machine unleashed a nationalistic tiger it proved unable to dismount. Xi was unable to dismount this anti-Japan beast even if he wanted to; in the author’s view, he was unwilling to wholeheartedly defuse bilateral acrimony and pursued, instead, a tactical accommodation to buy China time and much-needed economic resources and military capabilities. Xi was a nationalist himself.

Indeed, evidence of a deepened geopolitical realignment among longstanding partners ‒between China and Russia on one side, and the US and Japan and others, such as Australia and India, on the other‒ provided another indication of the gathering storm clouds in the region. 2015 saw a full-blown rise of joint naval drills in the Indo-Pacific; these were directed towards enhancing interoperability, deterring adversaries and reassuring domestic constituencies, but their sheer quantity, increased  tempo and number of actors involved betrayed the action-reaction dynamics of a region-wide security dilemma. Prior to the September 3 military parade, Russian and Chinese navies held their largest joint naval exercises in history, Joint Sea 2015 II. Twenty-two vessels, 20 aircraft, 40 armored vehicles and 500 marines engaged in anti-submarine, anti-aircraft and anti-ship exercises. It was a first for China, which had never engaged in a joint naval drill in that theater before. A further indication of deepening bilateral military ties was the first-ever joint amphibious operations on Russian territory off Vladivostok.[99] These military exercises are likely to become more common and echo regional noises. For example, the Japanese Navy joined the India-US Malabar naval exercises in the Gulf of Bengal as a regular participant[100] Notably, Japan’s more forceful pronouncements in favor of engagement in the South China Sea were accompanied by other joint exercises clearly aimed at deterring China from meddling with its neighbors. It sent a small contingent to large-scale joint US-Australia exercises, it engaged in bilateral drills with the Philippines Navy and later, the US Navy, in waters adjacent to the hotly contested Spratly Islands. It also participated in a multi-nation exercise with the intention of reclaiming remote islands.[101] The burgeoning expansion of scope and deepening intensity of military drills from both camps hinted that it was still too early to talk of any Sino-Japanese rapprochement worthy of notice.

Military trends provided another indication of rising tensions, again evidenced by action-reaction dynamics in naval and constabulary military procurements. Specific to Sino-Japanese relations, the budding East China Sea «security dilemma» had not yet evolved into a naval arms race, but a «naval constabulary forces race» in which Japan responded to China’s aforementioned mammoth Coast Guard ship, the first of two, by considering the redeployment of coast guard vessels to docks closer to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and ECS choke points.[102] Previously, the central government had also moved forward with its plan to establish a Ground Self-Defense Force surveillance station and garrison on the remote Yonaguni Island.[103] Moreover, the Japanese Coast Guard made a budget request for a near-record 204 billion yen in the 2016 fiscal year, 10% up from the year before.[104] In fact, the CGS procurement did not fall into Japan’s much-vaunted 1% to GDP ceiling for its annual military budget.[105] Finally, the Japanese military planners aimed at «stringing a line of anti-ship, anti-aircraft missile batteries along 200 islands in the East China Sea stretching 1,400 km from the country’s mainland toward Taiwan».[106] Thus, while defensive in character, operations on that front increasingly reflected the common characteristics of an arms race: they were driven by international imperatives; they were bilateral in scope; intense in rapidity and expression; they were associated with ongoing high political tension; they were operationally specific and they were indicative of high strategic stakes in the eyes of policymakers in both states.[107] China and Japan’s decision to continue their naval procurement in aircraft/«helicopter» carriers was indicative of the broader undercurrents on the military front.[108] But Japan still heavily depends on US extended deterrence. Either a full-blown arms race or else, in the words of a blue-ribbon advisory group to MOFA, the «law of the jungle» would be the result of a progressive United States military retrenchment from the region.[109] To avoid this nightmare scenario, Japanese policymakers reasoned that they needed to further bolster their defense and, as recounted earlier, to sustain the United States’ military engagement in the South China Sea.

4.1. A stabilizing factor? Economic interdependence and antagonistic economic blocs

What about economic interaction in 2015? Proponents of commercial pacifism argue that greater economic interdependence between states translates into increased cooperation, as rational policymakers acknowledge the benefits of «peace dividends», such as trade, bilateral investment and reduced military budgets. This paradigm ascribes to non-state actors, such as multinational enterprises (MNE), a prominent role both in fostering economic interdependence and lobbying for international stability conducive to business interests. Making a cost-benefit analysis, state leaders value peace and cooperation over destabilizing military balancing policies with valuable economic partners. This view is represented by Richard Rosecrance’s view that global capital and interstate trade favors integration, and gradually makes military power redundant in the management of interstate relations. According to him, Japan is a perfect example of a trading state and, thanks to financial liberalization in the 1980s, of a capital-exporting virtual state.[110] In addition, a richer and more recent analysis of the «ties that bind» Japan and China towards greater integration and cooperation is presented by Kent Calder and Min Ye. Their argument posits that functional cooperation through a set of regional frameworks emerged from the ashes of the 1997 Asian Financial Crisis and that this had fostered regional economic integration:

«Strong underlying macroeconomic complementarities among capital-intensive Japan, labor-intensive China, and entrepreneurial Korea, reinforced by deepening transnational production and distribution networks at the micro-level, and with Taiwan as an intriguing new catalyst, clearly facilitate interdependence. […] the concept of a more autonomous Northeast Asian core, with its components coordinated through soft-institutionalist networks among the spokes of the Pacific wheel, approaches more closely the emerging regional reality, given recent trade, financial, and even geopolitical trends as China rises, cross-Straits relations improve, and American hegemony wanes».[111]

Thus, according to the two authors: a) the rise of regional production networks, in which  China is Japan’s main target market for Foreign Direct Investment and production offshoring, b) deepening epistemic communities among intellectuals and policymakers, and c) trade and financial integration, as shown respectively by the negotiation of a trilateral FTA and bilateral swap agreements of currency reserves, have progressively made cooperation among the parties more likely and US presence less relevant.

Critics counter-argue by citing the historical record: notwithstanding Great Britain and Germany were each other’s major trading partner, the rising continental Power and status-quo maritime Power fought a bitter war between 1914 and 1918. In other words, security trumps economic prosperity in whenever the two collide. This example is, however, partial, since Japan’s economic stakes embedded in continental China, which are exemplified by Japanese Foreign Direct Investments and direct ownership of offshore production facilities, are clearly higher compared to British-German trade in the early 20th Century. By examining transnational economic actors, Calder, Ye and Rosecrance share the assumption that their interests are ultimately synonymous with state interests and translate into a rational foreign policy aimed at the maximization of economic gains. Nonetheless, both contemporary Sino-Japanese relations and fin de siècle European interstate relations share a major weakness, the destabilizing and parallel influences of irrational threat perceptions, usually fed by nationalistic sentiments. In fact, both set of relations have been fraught with the destabilizing, irrational effects of mutually-reinforcing nationalisms, both at the elite level and, to a lesser extent in Japan’s case, at the societal level.[112] Evidence of such sentiments, especially on China’s side, have been provided throughout this essay. This weakness is not usually given adequate attention in theories of liberal interdependence, which often focus on rationally-calculated gains.

To sum up:  key economic initiatives in the year under review testify to the strategic use of free trade agreements and new financial institutions for clear geopolitical aims. China inaugurated its much-vaunted Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) to rival the existing G7-centered development-focused international financial institutions: the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank (ADB). The surprise decision by the United Kingdom to become an AIIB shareholder triggered a chain reaction among other major US allies: Germany, France, Italy, Australia and South Korea, among others, all agreed to become early supporters of Beijing’s initiative. The United States government’s unsuccessful lobbying against their participation testified to the growing economic and political clout enjoyed by China.[113] In 2016, China will also inaugurate the BRICS-led New Development Bank. In connection with these new financial institutions, China took its «One Belt, One Road» initiatives to augment its presence in areas that have historically been open for American, European or Russian involvement. Thus, it promoted free trade agreements, investment and infrastructure building in Central Asia and Africa, all way to the west of China.[114] Moreover, China’s new initiatives were directed at securing its continental backyard to refocus its military energies more confidently on the East and South China Seas. The logic of the game of go also applied to geo-economic interaction.

Were China’s mammoth initiatives spurred solely by economic considerations? To a certain extent, the grandiose plans for a new maritime and a continental Silk Road connecting China with the land and sea fringes of the Eurasian landmass played well with the CCP’s internal propaganda,   which increasingly insisted on the «China Dream» and the achievement of a «national rejuvenation» that would bring China back to its ancient greatness. At the same time, there were undeniable geopolitical undercurrents embedded in Beijing’s economic activities. For instance, an October 2015 special issue of the popular Chinese National Geography (Zhongguo Guojia Dili) was entirely dedicated to China’s geo-economic challenges, and to its solutions. The language register was unmistakably rooted in the Realpolitik proper of modern geopolitical thought: it borrowed Halford Mackinder’s term  to call for China’s advancement into the Eurasian continental «heartland» and, to a lesser extent, into the seas through the twin «One Belt, One Road» Initiative. According to the contributors, China needed to act because Washington was advancing major initiatives to contain China through a concert of sea powers, a concept borrowed by famous naval strategist Alfred Mahan.[115]

Indeed, in October 2015 Japan and the United States, as well as ten other countries, concluded the long-awaited Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) Free Trade Agreement negotiations that bound the economies of 12 Asia-Pacific maritime states. The economy-security nexus was evident with the inclusion of key US allies and strategic partners within the scope of the TPP: Vietnam, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the like. In accordance with China’s continental initiatives, geopolitics trumped economic considerations of losses and gains. In fact, the TPP certainly favored multinational enterprises, but it would have fostered economic blocs, whose frontiers coincide with the existing military ones. At any rate, the treaty still needed to go through the hurdles of the ratification process. The fate of the TPP deal was still in limbo as the United States entered the presidential campaign season: an early proponent of the deal, then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, turned lukewarm during the Democratic Party primaries to woo labor unions and lobbying groups against the TPP deal.[116] As demonstrated by the AIIB, «One Belt, One Road» and the TPP initiatives, geopolitics were clearly deemed more important than economics. The strategic logic of the game of go informed the behavior of the region’s major Great Powers – China, the United States and Japan – throughout the year under review.

  1. Conclusions

The year under review testified to the primacy of geopolitical interaction, resembling a game of go. Indeed, 2015 witnessed important changes in Japan’s security strictures. The new US-Japan security guidelines and Japan’s new security laws ushered in a new set of formal and informal institutions that would have allowed Japan, if not constrained, to a more active security position; these factors were leading Tokyo to a more muscular stance in defense of areas well distant from the archipelago down to the South China Sea. China’s continued assertiveness there, and Abe’s fondness for power politics as a tool of statecraft, certainly favored Japan’s enhanced military profile. Yet, this essay has argued that US leverage has also played a substantial role in encouraging Abe’s interest in the China-centered game of go. The only possible obstacle to Tokyo’s muscle flexing was Japan’s insular, yet realist, public opinion.[117] At the same time, Japanese Self-Defense Forces’ aircraft and vessels, returning from antipiracy missions in the Gulf of Aden, were already conducting surveillance operations around the South China Sea, away from public scrutiny.[118] More importantly, Japanese public opinion was much in favor of routine «cautionary surveillance» there, according to a Yomiuri Shinbun survey of late 2015.[119]

In the meantime Beijing pursued its tactical accommodation with Tokyo, but the prospects for stability in the medium term were not promising given the simmering geopolitical tensions and bilateral war of words. The crescendo of hostile words and actions also informed the rival economic initiatives that were finalized in 2015. Moreover, at the very end of the year, the East China Sea witnessed a new round of bilateral tensions, possibly in connection with Japan’s growing involvement in the South China Sea.[120]

With regard to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, only substantial mutual concessions could have brought the «quiet understanding» dispute back into life.[121] In fact, the Sino-Japanese rivalry and standoff over the disputed islands is as much a dispute over geo-politics as over honor and status, with neither side able to fundamentally back down.[122] For these reasons, a tenable and meaningful détente over the disputed islands must rest on more than wishful calls for international arbitration through the International Court of Justice (ICJ). China’s reaction to a possible ICJ verdict that assigned sovereignty to Japan will likely veer toward the hostile. For these reasons, the two parties need to devise more creative compromises.

A popular saying maintains that good fences make good neighbors. In fact, China and Japan have been trapped precisely by such a continental approach as this to maritime boundaries. That is, bilateral relations have suffered from Tokyo and Beijing’s reification of the Westphalian trope over a set of small disputed islands.[123] Unless the two governments put a lid on the Senkaku/Diaoyu battle for honor and status, the quiet «constabulary arms race» taking place in the East China Seas is destined to rock the whole Asia-Pacific. Both countries need to give more than they take in order to usher in a new «quiet understanding» that shelves the dispute; creative solutions may even turn a temporary fix for the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands crisis into a long-term solution for bilateral cooperation in the maritime boundaries of the East China Sea. For instance, the two countries may adopt a functionalist approach designed after the 1950 Schuman Declaration that preluded the European Coal and Steel Community. Hypothetically, Japan could offer joint development of natural resource fields within its claimed Exclusive Economic Zone, including the EEZ that extends from the Senkaku/Diaoyu: in this way China abandons the implicit recognition of Japan’s claimed EEZ median line and obtains an indirect recognition by Japan of the existence of a dispute. Conversely, China stops any dispatch of official vessels and aircraft to the disputed islands. This would allow Japan to cement its effective control and (already strong) legal claims there. After all, possession is nine-tenths of the law. While the dispute is understandable given the background of Sino-Japanese relations, the two states sought to appreciate the possible benefits of joint exploitation of natural resources in the ECS seabed of the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, and henceforth make the East China Sea «a sea of peace, cooperation, and friendship».

Nonetheless, events in 2015 relegated the possibility of such creative solutions to the distant future, because the Senkaku/Diaoyu and Spratly Islands’ standoffs were the products of the broader undercurrents of regional power transition. The leading strategic game of go was rooted in the logic of power politics, and the shifting tectonic plates of the Asia-Pacific were more rapidly grinding past each-other with some significant realignments in place. A major earthquake in one of the many fault lines came to be a possibility. The logic of the game of go continues to govern the East Asian seas, but, as the adage goes, «it’s all fun and games until somebody loses an eye». The prospect for incidents looked remote in 2015, but it remains a real possibility in the medium term in the face of Chinese assertiveness, mounting US-China rivalry and, realistically, greater Japanese military engagement in the South China Sea.


[1] The author wishes to thank Maria Paisley, Paul Midford, Jason Franz, Niall Coen, Aaron Schroeder-Willis, Brad Glosserman and Hillel Loew for their valuable comments and support. All errors are the author’s.  Twitter account: @Giappugliese.

[2] Henry Kissinger famously qualified China’s Realpolitik as defined by the logic of weiqi. By 2015, the same logic extended to most regional players, who grew ever-more impatient. Kissinger defines the game as follows: «Weiqi translates as ‘a game of surrounding pieces’; it implies a concept of strategic encirclement. The board, a grid of nineteen-by-nineteen lines, begins empty. Each player has 180 pieces, or stones, at his disposal, each of equal value with the others. The players take turns placing stones at any point on the board, building up positions of strength while working to encircle and capture the opponent’s stones. Multiple contests take place simultaneously in different regions of the board. The balance of forces shifts incrementally with each move, as the players implement strategic plans and react to each other’s initiatives. At the end of a well-played game, the board is filled by partially interlocking areas of strength.» Henry Kissinger, On China, London: Allen Lane, 2011, pp. 23-25.

[3]‘UK Progress, Pacific Tensions Key Naval Conference’, Defense News, 16 September 2015. The Vice-Admiral claimed, through an interpreter: «The Chinese people have been working and producing around the sea area [since the Han dynasty (23-220 A.D.)].» However, historical evidence suggests otherwise. The Kingdom of Funan was the dominant power in Southeast Asia throughout the 5th Century A.D., while Chinese ships made trading voyages across the Sea only in the 10th Century A.D. Moreover, it was the Portuguese that christened the South China Sea waters in the 16th Century. Cfr. Bill Hayton, The South China Sea: The Struggle for Power in Asia, New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014, pp. 10-13; 32-33; Chinese netizens’ forceful defense of the Vice-Admiral statements provides a good window to the underlying nationalism: ‘«Minami Shina Kai wa Chūgoku no mono da!» Chūgoku Hokkai Kantai Shireikan ga Eikoku de «odorokubeki hatsugen» to no hōdō ni «doko ga odorokubeki no hatsugen?» «tada no jijitsu jan?» – Chūgoku Netto’, («The South China Sea Belongs to China!» Says Commander of the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s North Sea Fleet visiting the United Kingdom; Foreign Media Report it as «Surprising Statement», Chinese Netizens React: «What Exactly is Surprising?», «Isn’t that Plain Truth?»), Record China, 18 September 2015.

[4] The Global Times decreed China’s South China Sea land-filling operations as «an enormous success; a masterpiece of China’s diplomatic strategy». ‘Chūgoku-shi, ganshō umetate wo «Chūgoku gaikō senryaku no kessaku» to jisan’ (Chinese Newspaper is Self-Congratulatory on Expansion of Reefs into Artificial Islands: «A Masterpiece of Chinese Foreign Policy Strategy»), Kyodo News, 22 July 2015.

[5]  Michael Yahuda, Sino-Japanese Relations after the Cold War, London and New York: Routledge, 2014, pp. 54-59.

[6] Toshi Yoshihara & James R. Holmes, Red Star over the Pacific: China’s Rise and the Challenge to US Maritime Strategy, Annapolis: Naval Institute Press, 2010, pp. 51-54.

[7] The United States, Japan and China are the main subjects of this essay, because of their decisive military and economic weight for regional stability.

[8] Paul Midford, ‘Japan’s Approach to Maritime Security in the South China Sea’, Asian Survey, vol. 55, n. 3, May/June 2015, pp. 525-547.

[9] Fareed Zakaria, ‘A Conversation with Lee Kuan Yew’, Foreign Affairs, Vol. 73, No.2, March/April 1994, §8.

[10] See, especially: ‘Liu Cigui: Weihu Zhongguo zai Nanhai de quanyi shi guan guojia hexin liyi’ (Li Cigui: Safeguard China’s Core State Interests in the South China Sea), China News Service (Zhongguo Xinwen Wang), 26 October 2012; Edward Wong, ‘Security Law Suggests a Broadening of China’s «Core Interests»’, The New York Times, 2 July 2015.

[11] Ministry of National Defense of the People’s Republic of China, ‘Chang Wanquan huijian Meiguo Guofang Buzhang Kate’ (Chang Wanquan Met US Secretary of Defense Carter), 4 November 2015 (, §6.

[12] Giulio Pugliese, ‘Giappone: il ritorno di Abe’ (Japan: Abe’s Comeback), Asia Maior 2013, pp. 409-444; Giulio Pugliese, ‘Japan 2014: Between a China Question and a China Obsession’, Asia Maior 2014, pp. 43-97; Christopher W. Hughes, Japan’s Foreign and Security Policy Under the «Abe Doctrine»: New Dynamism or New Dead End? Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015, pp. 8-27.

[13] Paul Midford, ‘Japan’s Approach to Maritime Security in the South China Sea’; Adam P. Liff, ‘Japan’s Defense Policy: Abe the Evolutionary’, The Washington Quarterly, Vol. 38, No. 2, July 2015, pp. 79-99.

[14] The White House, US-Japan Joint Vision Statement, 28 April 2015 (

[15] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Address by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to a Joint Meeting of the US Congress «Toward an Alliance of Hope», 29 April 2015 (

[16] Government of Japan, Cabinet Decision on Development of Seamless Security Legislation to Ensure Japan’s Survival and Protect its People, 1 July 2014 (

[17] ‘Tokushū: Minami Shina Kai wo Senryō suru Chūgoku no shinbō’ (Special Report: China’s well-thought plan to seize the South China Sea), Newsweek Japan, 7 July 2015.

[18] Ministry of Defense – Japan, Defense of Japan 2015, Tokyo, July 2015, see in particular: ‘Defense Policies of Countries: Section 3 – China’(

[19] Ibid.

[20] See, for instance: ‘Bōei hakusho: Chūgoku no kaiyō shinshutsu wo hihan – Minami Shina Kai umetate kyōkō’ (Defense White Paper: Criticism of China’s Advancement into theSeas and of its South China Sea Land-filling Operations), Mainichi Shinbun, 21 July 2015.

[21] Ministry of Defense – Japan, China’s Activities in the South China Sea, 28 July 2015 (; the original Japanese slides – Minami Shina-kai ni okeru Chūgoku no katsudō – date back to May 2015.

[22] On the last two aspects: Giulio Pugliese, ‘The China Challenge, Abe Shinzo’s Realism, and the Limits of Japanese Nationalism’, The SAIS Review of International Affairs, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer-Fall 2015, pp. 45-55.

[23] ‘Japan may conduct South China Sea patrols, says military chief’, The Guardian, 17 July 2015.

[24] ‘Exclusive: China warns US surveillance plane’, CNN News, 26 May 2015 (updated on 15 September), (

[25] ‘CNN’s Amanpour: Standoff in South China Sea; World Leaders Arrive in Germany for G7 Summit; Calls for FIFA Reform; Imagine a World.’ CNN (Transcripts), 4 June 2015, (

[26] Demetri Sevastopulo & Geoff Dyer, ‘US Navy operations send muddled message to China’, The Financial Times, 7 November 2015.

[27] Bjørn Elias Mikalsen Grønning, ‘Japan’s Shifting Military Priorities: Counterbalancing China’s Rise’, Asian Security, Vol. 10, No. 1, 2014, p. 8.

[28] Mark Beeson, ‘With Friends Like These: Reassessing the Australia-US Relationship’, in Mark Beeson (ed.), Bush and Asia: America’s Evolving Relations with East Asia, London and New York: Routledge, 2006, pp. 213-227.

[29] Ronald Dore, Giulio Pugliese, & Ezra Vogel, ‘Nihon wa jikuashi wo okubeki wa, Beikoku? Chūgoku?’ (What Ought to Be Japan’s Pivot? The US or China?), Chūō Kōron, Vol. 128, No. 6, 2012, pp. 82-92.

[30] Yomiuri Shinbun Seijibu, Abe Kantei tai Shū Kinpei (Abe’s Kantei vs. Xi Jinping), Tokyo: Shinchōsha, 2015, pp. 67-69.

[31] ‘Bei «do wo kosu shuchō ni idomu» Chūgoku kensei he Minami Shina-kai kōkō’ (United States Exerts Navigation Activities in the South China Sea to Keep China in Check: «We Are Challenging Excessive Claims»), Asahi Shinbun, 28 October 2015.

[32] ‘Japan plans Vietnam port call to check Chinese expansion’, Nikkei Asian Review, 30 October 2015.

[33] Personal interview with Ambassador Richard Armitage, Tokyo, 1 August 2014.

[34] Personal interview with Japanese policymaker, 30 July 2014.

[35] Consulate General of the People’s Republic of China in Sydney, Foreign Ministry Spokesperson Hong Lei’s Regular Press Conference on June 12, 2015, 12 June 2015, ( It went on to say: «The Chinese side is gravely concerned and indignant about the negative moves of the Japanese side. We have lodged multiple solemn representations with Japan. I want to emphasize that China has indisputable sovereignty over the Nansha Islands and the adjacent waters. China’s construction on some garrisoned maritime features of the Nansha Islands is well within China’s sovereignty. It is lawful, justified and reasonable, not directed at any other country and thus beyond any reproach. Japan is not a party concerned to the South China Sea issue. Recently it has behaved in an abnormal way, deliberately thrust a hand in the South China Sea issue, driven a wedge among regional countries and maliciously created tensions in the South China Sea. Japan’s moves do no good to solve the South China Sea disputes, or safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea. It also severely damages the political and security mutual trust between China and Japan, and runs counter to the momentum of improving bilateral relations. We once again urge the Japanese side to abide by its commitment of not taking sides on the South China Sea disputes, put an immediate end to the hyping up of the South China Sea issue and groundless accusations against China, stop provoking conflicts among different parties for self-serving interests, genuinely maintain the momentum of improving Sino-Japanese relations and respect the efforts by China and ASEAN countries to safeguard peace and stability of the South China Sea».

[36] China’s State Information Office, ‘Diaoyu Dao – The Inherent Territory of China’, (

[37] David Tweed & James Mayger, ‘China Sends Japan a «Don’t Meddle» Message Via an Ex-Navy Ship’, Bloomberg Business, 29 December 2015.

[38] Small portions of this section are reprinted from another article, courtesy of Johns Hopkins University Press: Giulio Pugliese, ‘The China Challenge, Abe Shinzo’s Realism and the Limits of Japanese Nationalism’, The SAIS Review of International Affairs, Vol. 35, No. 2, Summer-Fall 2015, pp. 45-55.

[39] Andrew L. Oros, ‘International and Domestic Challenges to Japan’s Postwar Security Identity: «Norm Constructivism» and Japan’s New «Proactive Pacifism»’, The Pacific Review, Vol. 28, No. 1, 2015, pp. 139-160.

[40] The question’s wording reads as follows: «Of course, we all hope that there will not be another war, but if it were to come to that, would you be willing to fight for your country?»  Please refer to the World Values Survey database for comparisons (; see also: ‘«Anata no Kuni ga sensou ni makikomaretara susunde tatakauka» to toware «hai» to kotaeta hito, Nihon wa 11% de sekai saitei, Chūgoku wa 71% – kokusai yoron chōsa’ (Would You be Willing to Fight if Your Country Had to Fight a War? Positive Respondents Were 11% in Japan, the World’s Lowest, 71% in China – International Opinion Poll), Record China, 18 March 2015.

[41] Reiji Yoshida, ‘Polling shows voters unclear about Article 9 reinterpretation: expert’, The Japan Times, 11 July 2014; ‘Jieikan ōbo: nokinami genshō boueishō «shūdanteki jiei-ken» hitei’ (Decrease Across the Board for Applications to the JSDF, Ministry of Defense: «Unrelated to Dislike of Collective Self-Defense»), Mainichi Shinbun, 20 November 2014.

[42] A Japanese Non-Profit Organization, GENRON NPO, has aimed at enhancing dialogue between Japan and its neighbors through a variety of activities since the mid-2000s. Among these activities are annual public opinion surveys conducted in Japan and China through the cooperation of Chinese partners: Genron NPO, The 10th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll: Analysis Report on the Comparative Data, 9 September 2014 (

[43] Abe Shushō, ‘Minna no nyūsu nama shutsuen; Kokumin no gimon SP’ (Special Episode: Premier Abe LIVE on Minna no Nyūsu; Answers to Citizens’ Doubts), Minna no Nyūsu – FNN, 20 July 2015 (

[44] Giulio Pugliese, ‘Japan 2014: Between a China Question and a China Obsession’

[45] ‘Full text of Abe’s speech before US Congress’, The Japan Times, 30 April 2015.

[46] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Communication and Reconciliation in the Post War Era, 17 May 2015 (

[47] In all likelihood, China renamed the facility also for fear of violent nationalist outbursts. ‘Nippon’s (sic – i.e. «Japan» in Japanese) postwar contribution / «Friendship» latest casualty at ODA hospital’, The Yomiuri Shinbun/The Japan News, 20 July 2015.

[48] ‘Japan hits out as UNESCO archives «Nanjing Massacre» documents’, The Japan Times, 10 October 2015.

[49] Alito L. Malinao, ‘News Analysis: Analyst, book slam Japan’s refusal to genuinely apologize for World War II crimes’, Xinhua, 20 July 2015.

[50] Personal e-mail exchange with Prof. Thomas U. Berger, 21 July 2015.

[51] Luan (Editor), ‘Is Japan turning back on own promise?’, CCTVNews, 24 July 2015; Personal e-mail exchange with Dr. Alessio Patalano, 24 July 2015.

[52] The best window to Beijing’s history-related propaganda was its newly-inaugurated multi-language website: ‘Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the Chinese People’s Resistance against Japanese Aggression and World Anti-Fascist War’, Xinhua, 7 May 2015, (; A documentary series titled «Truth and Denial» aptly shows Beijing’s desire to pit Japan against  Germany and to focus its attention especially on right-wing politicians in general, and Abe in particular. ‘Truth and Denial’, Xinhua, 7 May 2015 (

[53] ‘Xi Jinping zong shuji fabiao zhongyao jianghua – Zai Nanjing da tusha sinan zhe guojia gongji yishi shang de jianghua’ (General Secretary Xi Jinping Delivered an Important Speech: Speech on the Nanjing Massacre Victims of the National Mourning Ceremony), Xinhua, 13 December 2014.

[54] ‘Speech delivered by the President of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping to the Körber Foundation’, Körber Stiftung, 28 March 2014 (

[55] ‘FOCUS: Impact of Abe’s meeting with Xi much bigger than it looks’, Kyodo News, 24 April 2015.

[56] Giulio Pugliese, ‘Giappone: il ritorno di Abe’ (Japan: Abe’s Comeback).

[57] ‘Japan on brink of technical recession’, Financial Times, 30 September 2015; ‘China says needs to ensure economic risks don’t turn into social risks’, Reuters, 31 July 2015.

[58] See, for example: David Shambaugh, ‘The Coming Chinese Crackup’, The Wall Street Journal, 6 March 2015.

[59] See, for example: Li Keqiang huijian Riben jingjijie daibiaotuan (Li Keqiang Meets a Delegation from Japan’s Economic World), Xinhua, 4 November 2015; Li Keqiang huijian Riben Shouxiang Anbei Jinsan (Li Keqiang Meets Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō), Xinhua, 1 November 2015.

[60] Giulio Pugliese, ‘Japan 2014: Between a China Question and a China Obsession’.

[61] ‘Kankei fukuzatsu-ka saseta «itoku hōon» – Sengo 70nen, ima mo tsuduku tainichi messēji Shū Kinpei, Chūgoku’ («Repaying Hatred with Kindness» Has Made the Relationship More Complicated – An Enduring Message Aimed at Japan 70 Years After: Xi Jinping, China), Jiji Tsūshin, 30 July 2015.

[62] Barak Kushner, Men to Devils, Devils to Men: Japanese War Crimes and Chinese Justice, Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015, p. 94.

[63] Xi Jinping chuxi Zhong-Ri Youhao Jiaoliu Dahui bing fabiao zhongyao jianghua (Xi Jinping attended the China-Japan Friendship Exchange Meeting and delivered an important speech), Renmin Ribao, 24 May 2015. Xi Jinping zai Zhong-Ri Youhao Jiaoliu Dahui shang de jianghua (Speech Delivered by Xi Jingping at the China-Japan Friendship Exchange Meeting), Xinhua, 23 May 2015.

[64] ‘Shū Shuseki: «Rekishi waikyoku suru gendō yurusanai»: Nikai-shira hochū-dan Shū Kinpei Kokka Shuseki to menkai: Abe Shushō ni yoroshiku to’ (Chairman Xi: «Historical Distortions are Unforgivable» – President Xi Meets China-Visiting Group Led by Nikai: Send My Greetings to Abe), NHK News, 23 March 2015. ‘Nikai-shi hochū Shū-shi no tainichi kaizen shisei wa honmono ka?’ (Nikai’s Visit to China – Is Xi’s Softened Stance vis-à-vis Japan for Real?), Yomiuri Shinbun, 26 May 2015.

[65] ‘Jinian shijie fan faxisi zhanzheng shengli 70 zhounian’ (Commemoration of the 70th Anniversary of the World Anti-Fascist War), Xinhua, May 2015 onwards; ‘Zhongguo renmin kangri zhanzheng ji shijie fan faxisi zhanzheng shengli 70 zhounian’ (70th Anniversary of the Chinese People’s Victorious War of Resistance Against Japan and World Anti-Fascist War), Xinhua, July 2015 onwards(

[66] ‘Truth and Denial’, Xinhua, 7 July 2015; in Chinese: ‘Guangming yu yinmai: De-Ri Erzhan fansi lu’ (Light and Shadows: Documents of Germany and Japan’s Introspection over World War II), July 2015 (

[67] Private pictures of streets in Beijing in the months before and after Victory Day presented to the author, available upon request.

[68] Ibid.

[69] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, Xijinping huijian Riben Shouxiang Anbei Jinsan (Xi Jinping Meets with Prime Minister Abe Shinzō of Japan), 22 April 2015 (

[70] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Japan-China Relations: Towards a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interest, 17 May 2015 (

[71] ‘Guanfang queren zhongguo jinnian juxing yuebing shouci you waiguo shounao chuxi’ (Officials Have Confirmed That China Will Hold Military Parade This Year – Foreign Leaders will Attend), Renminwang, 27 January 2015 (

[72] State Council Information and Press Office press release, 23 June 2015.

[73] E-mail exchange with Brad Glosserman, Executive Director of Pacific Forum CSIS, 8 December 2015.

[74] ‘Keiō Dai Hosoya-shi «Baransu tore sandō erareru naiyō»’ (Keiō University Hosoya: «Balanced Content will Meet with General Approbation»’), NHK 7ji News, 6 August 2015; ‘Soko ga kikitai: sengo 70nen danwa – Kitaoka Shinichi-shi’ (That’s What I’d Like to Inquire About: Statement Commemorating 70 Years from the End of WWII – Mr. Kitaoka Shinichi), Mainichi Shinbun, 3 June 2015.

[75] Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, Report of the Advisory Panel on the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century, Tokyo, (, August 2015, p. 12.

[76] Ibid., p. 6.

[77] ‘«Rekishi ninshiki de Kankoku ga gōru ugokashita», «aikokushugi kyōka shita Chūgoku ga kōiteki de nakatta» – seifu kankei bunsho de irei no fumikonda hyōgen’ (‘«South Korea Moved the Goalpost in the History Issue», «Through Strengthened Patriotic Education China did not Respond Favorably to Japan» – a Government-Related Document Replete with Unprecedented Expressions), Sankei Shinbun, 7 August 2015; ‘Sengo 70nen danwa – wakai he no messēji wo’ (The Statement on Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of End of World War II: a Message of Reconciliation), Asahi Shinbun, 7 August 2015; ‘Chūmoku nyūsu 90byō sengo 70nen danwa yūishikisha kaigi hōkokusho’ (Hot News in 90 seconds – Blue Ribbon Panel Report for the Statement on Occasion of the 70th Anniversary of the End of World War II), Mainichi Shinbun Videos, 6 August 2015, (

[78] ‘Japan in Depth / Most panel members share history view’, The Japan News, 7 August 2015.

[79] Shinichi Kitaoka, ‘Insights into the world – Separate historical perceptions, apology’, The Japan News, 8 June 2015.

[80] Interview with Yaming Tang, Head of the Society of Chinese Professors in Japan, 30 July 2015. The 1995 Murayama Statement and 2005 Koizumi Statement are listed in MOFA’s webpage dedicated to the Japanese government’s efforts at historical reconciliation: Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, ‘Issues Regarding History’ (, 26 November 2015.

[81] See for instance: ‘Dai san-ji Abe Naikaku Kakuryō no «Nippon no Zento to Rekishi Kyōiku wo Kangaeru Wakate Giin no Kai» sankasha (Members of the «Young Diet Members Committee to Consider the Future of Japan and History Education» who are part of the Third Abe Government), Shūkan Kinyōbi, 9 August 2015.

[82] ‘(Sengo 70nen) Murayama, Koizumi Danwa «datō» 74% Asahi Shinbun Yoron Chōsa’ (70th Anniversary from the Post-war: 74% of Respondents Consider Murayama and Koizumi Statements «Appropriate»), Asahi Shinbun, 14 April 2015.

[83] Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, Abe Naikaku Sōri Daijin Kisha Kaiken (Press Conference of Prime Minister Abe), 14 August 2015 (

[84] Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, Statement by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama «On the occasion of the 50th anniversary of the war’s end», 15 August 1995 (

[85] Prime Minister of Japan and His Cabinet, Abe Naikaku Sōri Daijin Kisha Kaiken

[86] ‘Survey finds Abe Cabinet support rating at 43.2%, up 5.5% from July’, The Japan Times, 15 August 2015.

[87] ‘Abe-shi wa Kokkai Ketsugi wo kesseki, Murayama Danwa wo ketsudan 95nen’ (Abe was Absent during Diet Resolution, Murayama opted for the 1995 Government-backed Statement), Asahi Shinbun, 4 March 2015.

[88] Participatory observation at «Yachi juku» training camp (gasshuku), Komaba, 9 December 2012.

[89] The White House, Statement by NSC Spokesperson Ned Price on Japanese Prime Minister Abe’s Statement on the 70th Anniversary of the End of World War II, 14 August 2015.

[90] ‘Anbei tanhua: san ge guanjian ci buke huo que’ (Abe Statement: Three Words are Indispensable), Renmin Wang, 3 August 2015; Rumors spread that authorities had called off the meeting in 2015, but China’s state agency reported otherwise: ‘Summit season begins in Beidaihe for China’s Communist Party leaders’, South China Morning Post, 5 August 2015.

[91] Note posted online on 5 August 2015.

[92] Interview with Yaming Tang, Head of the Society of Chinese Professors in Japan, 30 July 2015. With regard to reference to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in school textbooks: Giulio Pugliese, ‘Japan 2014: Between a China Question and a China Obsession’, pp. 85-86.

[93] Ryan D. Martinson, ‘East Asian Security in the Age of the Chinese Mega-Cutter’, Center for International Maritime Security, 3 July 2015 (

[94] Andrew S. Ericson, ‘«This is the Chinese Navy!» ‒ PLAN Ad Video Recruits Millennials with Patriotic Appeal’, 11 August 2015 (

[95] Lauren Dickey, ‘Chinese Animators Envision a Future Asia-Pacific War and Blow Up the Internet’, Council on Foreign Relations (; original video available at:

[96] Cong guoji tiaoyue shijiao lun Diaoyudao zhuquan guishu Zhongguo (Diaoyu Islands Sovereignty Belongs to China from an International Perspective on the Treaty), Renmin Ribao, 15 August 2015.

[97] Christopher R. Hughes, ‘Japan in the politics of Chinese leadership legitimacy: recent developments in historical perspective’, Japan forum, Vol. 20, No. 2, 2008, pp. 245-266.

[98] ‘Stop meddling in politics: Chinese President Xi Jinping’s coded message to Jiang Zemin’, South China Morning Post, 11 August 2015.

[99] ‘Russia, China kick off active phase of Sea of Japan naval drills’, RT, 24 August 2015 (

[100] ‘India shuns China, allows Japan in Malabar naval drill’, The Times of India, 13 July 2015.

[101] ‘Talisman Sabre: Trying to deter China’, Military Times, 26 July 2015;‘US, Japan Join Philippines in Navy Drills Near South China Sea’, Bloomberg News, 22 June 2015; Ankit Panda, ‘A First: Japanese and US Navies Hold Exercise in South China Sea’, The Diplomat, 31 October 2015; ‘Japanese troops attack California island in training exercise with US forces’, Asahi Shinbun, 3 September 2015.

[102] ‘Coast guard aims to deploy unit on remote island to deal with Chinese boats’, Yomiuri Shinbun/The Japan News, 25 August 2015.

[103] ‘60% of Yonagunijima islanders vote for stationing of SDF unit’, Asahi Shinbun, 23 February 2015.

[104] Miha Hribernik, ‘The Japan Coast Guard (JCG) as a Foreign Policy Instrument in Southeast Asia’, Asia Pacific Bulletin, No 331, 1 December 2015.

[105] Richard J. Samuels, ‘New Fighting Power!’ Japan’s Growing Maritime Capabilities and East Asian Security’, International Security, Winter 2007/2008, Vol. 32, No. 3, Pages 84-112.

[106] Tim Kelly & Nobuhiro Kubo, ‘Exclusive: Japan’s far-flung island defense plan seeks to turn tables on China’, Reuters, 18 December 2015.

[107] The author adopts the classic definition provided by: Geoffrey Till, Asia’s Naval Expansion: an arms race in the making?, Oxon: Routledge, 2012, pp. 18-19.

[108] ‘China media confirm second aircraft carrier’, The Financial Times, 10 March 2015; Prashanth Parameswaran, ‘Japan Launches New Helicopter Destroyer’, The Diplomat, 29 August 2015.

[109] ‘Ministry panel predicts China will dominate Asia-Pacific in 20 years if US withdraws’, Asahi Shinbun, 26 April 2015.

[110] Richard Rosecrance, Rise of the Virtual State: Wealth and Power in the Coming Century, New York: Basic Books, 1999.

[111] Kent Calder & Min Ye, The Making of Northeast Asia, Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2010, p. 263.

[112] In the case of Germany and Britain, nationalism was clearly detectable on competition for colonies and the relatively young age of the German national polity, which would lead to the creation of powerful nationalistic narratives for the sake of domestic stability, hence overexpansion and over-balancing: Jack Snyder, Myths of Empire: Domestic Politics and International Ambition, Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1991, pp. 66-111. The progressive de-legitimization of the authoritarian political regime in communist China resembles the German example: Giulio Pugliese, ‘The Resurgence of Nationalism in Japan and China: a comparative analysis’, Orientalia Parthenopea, Vol. X, Naples: Orientalia Editrice, 2009, pp. 209-222.

[113] ‘US attacks UK’s «constant accommodation» with China’, Financial Times, 12 March 2015.

[114] Kerry Brown, ‘Green light for China’s Silk Road’, Inside Story, 19 May 2015.

[115] Zhongguo Guojia Dili «Yidai Yilu» Shi Yue Tekan (Chinese National Geography, Special October Issue «One Belt, One Road»), 14 October 2015 (

[116] ‘Hillary Clinton’s U-turn on TPP deal has team working overtime ahead of debate’, The Guardian, 13 October 2015.

[117] Paul Midford, Rethinking Japanese Public Opinion and Security From Pacifism to Realism?, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2011.

[118] Presentation at Joint Workshop: Globalizing Rivalry? Sino-Japanese Interaction in World Politics, Free University of Berlin, 12-13 November 2015.

[119] Michael T. Cucek, ‘Oh King Of Awful Majesty!’, Shisaku, 30 November 2015.

[120] David Tweed & James Mayger, ‘China Sends Japan a «Don’t Meddle» Message via an Ex-Navy Ship’, Bloomberg Business, 29 December 2015.

[121] On the «quiet understanding» please refer to: Reinhard Drifte, ‘The Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands territorial dispute between Japan and China: between the materialization of the «China threat» and Japan «reversing the outcome of World War II»?’, UNISCI Discussion Papers, n. 32, May 2013.

[122] Robert Ayson & Desmond Ball, ‘Can a Sino-Japanese War Be Controlled?’, Survival: Global Politics and Strategy, 2014, Vol. 56, No. 6, pp. 137-138.

[123] On the reification of the Westphalian and Tianxia models and the endurance of the former: June Teufel Dreyer, ‘The «Tianxia Trope»: will China change the international system?’, Journal of Contemporary China, 2015, Vol. 24, No. 96, pp. 1015-1031.


Giorgio Borsa

The Founder of Asia Maior

Università di Pavia

The "Cesare Bonacossa" Centre for the Study of Extra-European Peoples


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