China and Japan sparred once again, this time at the United Nations. Last week, China’s ambassador for disarmament affairs charged Japan with amassing excessive amounts of sensitive nuclear materials, notably 1,200 kilograms of highly-enriched uranium and 48 tons of separated plutonium (of which about a quarter is stored on Japanese territory). That is sufficient, he claimed, for Japan to make 1,350 nuclear warheads. Japan’s disarmament envoy shot back that his country’s nuclear program has safely operated under the International Atomic Energy Agency’s safeguards for more than 50 years. He added that over that time Japan has consistently demonstrated its peaceful intentions and would not pose a threat to other countries. Given that he directed his response at China’s ambassador, one may have also taken it as a reminder of China’s recent aggressive behavior in the East and South China Seas.
The pointed exchange marked another episode in the downward path of relations between China and Japan. It was not so long ago both countries got along. Throughout the 1990s and 2000s, they enjoyed ever closer economic ties. Many blame the current deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations on the tensions that arose over Senkaku Islands (or Diaoyu Islands in China) in 2010 or Tokyo’s purchase of them from private Japanese owners in 2012. Certainly trade between the two countries has fallen ever since then. (See table.) But the dispute over the islands was just the spark. China and Japan have substantially changed over the last two decades, both in absolute and relative terms. Both countries have developed domestic insecurities that led them to view each other with greater concern.
On the surface, China does not seem to have any cause for insecurity. Its ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is ostensibly at the pinnacle of its power. The government at which it is the head has presided over a 35-year economic expansion that has made China the envy of the developing world. It is even doling out largesse under the auspices of its “One Belt, One Road” initiative and through the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) that will likely expand its influence across Asia and Africa.
Yet the CCP has reason to be anxious. In its headlong push for economic growth, it often ignored public ire over government land grabs, pollution, and workers’ rights. The party’s widespread corruption further dented its credibility. Hence, despite the CCP’s best efforts to eliminate organized dissent, the number of public protests has recently risen. Meanwhile, China’s fast-rising economy, once the CCP’s shining achievement, is losing its luster amid sagging exports, bursting property bubbles, and rapidly mounting debts. Seen in that light, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and AIIB begin to look more like a worried search for growth abroad (and work for its infrastructure-building companies) than a coherent strategy to connect Eurasia’s economies.
Adding to the CCP’s unease is the ever-smaller number of true believers in its Marxist-Leninist ideology. Chinese President Xi Jinping’s efforts to promote Marxism have fallen flat. So, the CCP has returned to nationalism to bolster its popular appeal. A big part of that has always been showcasing the CCP as China’s savior from Japanese occupation (while largely omitting the role of Taiwan’s Kuomintang). The CCP seems to believe that its ceaseless criticism of Japan proves that it still faithfully stands watch against any revival of Japanese militarism that could threaten China.
Linked to that narrative, the CCP has tried to show how much stronger China has become under its rule. That was made clear in September when China celebrated the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II (and China’s victory over Japan) with a massive military parade in Beijing. The martial display conveyed the message to the Chinese people that they should be confident in the ability of the CCP to not only defend China, but also govern it. On the other hand, that Beijing felt the need to use such demonstrations of strength to dispel doubts about its political legitimacy probably worried its neighbors.
Meanwhile, across the Yellow Sea, Japan has grown insecure too. It can no longer rest easy as Asia’s dominant economic power, a title that it lost to China a decade ago. It is increasingly aware of its national vulnerabilities. Japan’s population is ageing fast and shrinking. That demographic shift not only has implications for every aspect of Japanese society, but also will make economic growth harder to achieve. That is doubly concerning for Japan, which is still struggling to break free from a quarter century of economic stagnation.
Japanese leaders are all too well aware that China’s rise is remaking the regional hierarchy in Asia. They realize that Japan cannot afford to remain forever quiescent, if it is to avoid being consigned to a subordinate role in the new order. That has compounded Japan’s sense of unease, because Japan knows that it must keep the power gap between China and Japan from growing wider, even though it now has fewer resources with which to do so. Fortunately for Japan, other Asian countries have begun to feel the same way. India, the Philippines, and Vietnam have all embraced Japan.
Tokyo has taken advantage of that sentiment and become far more diplomatically active across the region, if only to prevent China from consolidating its power there. As Xi has pushed China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe has never been far away. Abe has travelled to Southeast Asia numerous times to ink economic, political, and even a few military cooperation agreements. Last week, Abe began a five-country tour through Central Asia, which lies at the heart of China’s “One Road.” A week earlier, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force dispatched a destroyer to participate in naval drills with India and the United States in the Indian Ocean for the first time.
Meanwhile, there has been a generational change in Japan. Older Japanese who had been willing to accept Japan’s diminished international stature as penance for its militarist past are passing from the scene. Younger Japanese who have no connection with that past believe that their country has proven itself to be a responsible actor in world affairs. Today, a majority of Japanese believe that Japan has sufficiently apologized for its military actions during the 1930s and 1940s, which China relishes reminding Japan of at every turn. Unsurprisingly, recent polls showed that only 7 percent of Japanese viewed China favorably (down from 55 percent in 2002). Even more telling, China’s very unfavorable rating in Japan climbed to 48 percent.
The domestic insecurities of China and Japan are unlikely to abate soon. China’s insecurities, bound up with those of the CCP, will grow if the Chinese economy continues to slow. Japan’s insecurities are tied to its long-term demographic trends. Both sets of insecurities continue to drive a wedge between the two countries. Even the non-governmental Beijing-Tokyo Forum, whose primary purpose is to improve Sino-Japanese relations, has found it harder to reach a consensus. The forum, which invites high-level former government officials from both countries, has always managed to eke out a joint statement, even during particularly testy times in Sino-Japanese relations like 2012. This week it concluded without managing even that. For the moment, relations between China and Japan are on ice. The region should be grateful that the latest row between the two countries occurred inside the United Nations and not out in the East China Sea.
 Pew Research Center, “Global Opposition to U.S. Surveillance and Drones, but Limited Harm to America’s Image,” July 2014; Pew Research Center, “America’s Global Image Remains More Positive than China’s,” July 2013.