On a recent visit by 10 young Heritage Foundation researchers to Tokyo, Japan, the issue of torn relations between Japan and China dominated the majority of our meetings with Ministry of Defense and Ministry of Foreign Affairs officials. There was little substantive talk, though, about how relations will actually be mended over the upcoming years.
Both governments have been quick to call out the other country on current (and not so current) issues—surely to drum up national interest for both relatively new governments. This includes China’s constant territorial breaches in the East China Sea, uncertainty around China’s new Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), both countries’ comments over the other’s defense spending, and the rehashing of historical disputes.
Despite calling its relationship with China a “grey zone challenge”—neither at war nor at peace—Japan has begun to reevaluate its defense spending. The unlikely threat of a Russian invasion has led Japan to decrease its number of tanks in the northern region of Hokkaido, thus allowing it to focus spending on naval and air forces, specifically in the southern areas to deal with threats from North Korea and any possible incidents that may arise with China.
While Japan’s first increase in defense spending in over a decade is miniscule compared to that of countries like China, it is still welcome. For decades, the U.S. has asked Japan to spend more on its defense.
Japan constantly calls for an open dialogue with Chinese officials, especially in the context of talks facilitated or otherwise involving the U.S. Yet China often notes its opposition to the U.S. getting involved in regional dialogues, such as those around territorial issues in the South China Sea.
China and South Korea often criticize the current Japanese government for being nationalistic, especially after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine. What is really needed is a process by which South Korea and Japan—America’s most important Pacific allies—can work out their differences and focus attention on the real problem of managing China’s rise.