Last month, in December 2013, it was reported that the Japanese cabinet had approved a new security strategy and pushed for increased defence spending in a new 5 year defence plan. This was announced after a series of recent incidents with China in the area of the East China Sea which separates China from Japan. It appears both countries have been locked in a long standing territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea which Japan currently owns. It appears that China has been making some aggressive moves in the area which have certainly alarmed the Japanese and their American allies. As a result, tensions have been gradually rising in the Far East.
Historically relations between China and Japan have not been great to say the least. If we look at the history of Chinese-Japanese relations, one can compare it to the relation Britain had with France up until the 1900’s, one of rivalry, conflict and tension. Owing to the sheer size of China, it was obvious that dominance over far East Asia would fall to them. But on the 31st March 1854 things would change dramatically. Across the East China Sea, commodore Matthew Perry and his ships of the US Navy forced open Japan to the world, effectively ending the policy of 200 years of seclusion that the Japanese had lived by where no one could come in or out of Japan on penalty of death.
Upon opening to the world, the Japanese swiftly modernized their country adopting many western institutions and fast became a prominent industrialised state. In order to maintain this, they looked towards establishing an empire by expanding militarily throughout Asia. The first major modern conflict between the two powers was the first Sino-Japanese war in which the Japanese gained Korea and much of Manchuria from China. The Japanese victory propelled them to becoming the dominant power in the Far East, whilst China was swept with revolution. Suffering defeat and humiliation, the war highlighted the failings of the current Chinese regime of the Qing Dynasty who had ruled China since 1644. A revolution followed in which China was declared a Republic under the leadership of Sun Yat-Sen, seen by many as the father of modern China and head of the Kuomintang, or the nationalist party.
The revolution though did not cure China of her civil strife. Although the republican government was internationally recognised, it had little power over the country, many provinces being controlled by local warlords. The current ruling party, the nationalists, also faced dangerous competition from the communists who were gaining in popularity. In 1937 war erupted once again between the Chinese and Japanese, now the second Sino-Japanese war which lasted until 1945. Japan had great ambitions and needed the subjugation of China to pursue their imperial dreams. China was weak, unstable and fragmented and so presented an easy target for the Japanese who swiftly invaded. At first the conflict brought together the warlords, nationalists and communists to fight the common enemy, but eventually it broke down with the Chinese fighting among themselves as much as they fought the Japanese.
The Japanese invasion of China was swift and brutal. The capture of the Chinese capital (Nanking, currently spelled Nanjing) is but one example of the cruelty which the Japanese employed towards the Chinese. In what became known as the ‘Rape of Nanking’, the Japanese soldiers raped approximately 20,000 women (including infants and elderly), murdered around 250,000 civilians, 57,000 POW’s and committed indiscriminate theft and arson throughout the city. These crimes still cause animosity today with China and other Asian countries who have accused the Japanese government of ‘whitening’ the war crimes in school text books, the Japanese government though denies these claims.
In 1945 Japan surrendered following the dropping of the atomic bombs, marking the end of the Second World War. For the Chinese though, it would take only one year until they were once again at war, but this time with itself. The Chinese civil war, lasting from 1946 to 1950, saw the nationalists and communists fight for control of the country. Eventually the communists won and thus declared the People’s Republic of China. The nationalists meanwhile retreated to Taiwan, an island located to the East of mainland China. During the cold war, the relationship was understandably frosty due to the immediate ideological differences, Japan and most western nations at the time still recognized the nationalists as in control, even though they only really controlled the island of Taiwan. China was also keenly aware that Japan was essentially a military base for the Americans in the Far East and knew that if another war came, Japan would be an ally of America and therefore an enemy to communism.
Despite the ideological differences, as the Cold war progressed relations generally improved between the two powers with the signing of various economic agreements. Both were sceptical of the Soviet Union to the north and found common goals in wanting to improve their economies after the war years. The success achieved in both countries on an economic level was stunning, today China having the second largest economy whilst Japan follows in third place.
But recently things had taken a turn for the worse. In 2012, the Japanese Government completed the purchase of the Senkaku Islands (Called the Diaoyu Islands in China) from a private Japanese landowner, but China still maintains their claim. The purchase was met with outrage in China and anti-Japanese protests flared up throughout the country. On occasions Chinese and Japanese ships have come close to conflict around the islands. The Japanese consider the sea zones surrounding the islands as their exclusive economic zone, but Chinese and Taiwanese fishing boats, and sometimes military vessels, have entered the waters. There have been some incidents of collisions occurring between the various vessels from China and Japan.
In recent developments, tensions have been raised further by respective air defence zones overlapping. In 1968 the Japanese put up an ‘Air Defence Identification Zone’ which covered the islands in dispute, however in last November the Chinese established their own ‘Air Defence Zone’ which overlapped a large portion of the Japanese Zone and significantly covered the islands in dispute. On the 23rd November China announced that any aircraft entering the zone was required to notify Beijing or face the threat of military force.
The move has caused concern for the Japanese and their American allies who feel China is trying to change the status quo in the area by force. A Pentagon spokesman, named Col. Steve Warren, told reporters:
“The US Military will continue conducting flight operations in the region, including with our allies and partners, and will not in any way change how we conduct our operations as a result of this new policy, We will not register a flight plan, we will not identify our transponder, our radio frequency and logo,”.
On the 25th November 2013, the US air force flew two B52 bombers through the disputed zone on a training exercise, but did not encounter any friction with the Chinese. Around the same time period, the Chinese sent out two aerial patrols over the disputed area which prompted the Japanese to send their own fighter jets to intercept them, but no fighting took place. In December the US has been calling for both sides to stop ‘baiting’ each other and to start communicating effectively so as to avoid an unintended clash in the area. It appears that the Japanese, along with their American and South Korean allies, have all agreed not to comply with Chinese rules on the disputed area and so it now falls to the Chinese to make their next move. Things have begun to settle down, but some analysts believe that to be more weather related. Bonnie Glaser, a US security analyst, believes that tensions have only eased due to the number of typhoons in the area, she went on to say how China was not going to be making any compromises in the dispute.
On December 26th the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, made a visit to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine commemorates those who have died in service of the Japanese Empire but it has also enshrined those who were accused and sentenced of war crimes in the Second World War. The prime ministers visit sparked outrage in China who’s media has accused the Japanese PM as deliberately causing further tensions. Given recent developments, the timing of the visit was certainly not ideal. The Chinese are sure to capitalize on the visit to garner international condemnation of the Japanese, but for now we will wait and see what move the Chinese will make next in the stand off in the Far East.
Written by Jonny Morris