Since Abe Shinzō succeeded Koizumi Junichirō in 2006, the focus of Japan's China policy has been the promotion of what has been called in official documents as a "strategic, reciprocal relationship" between Japan and China. Acknowledging the importance of the bilateral relationship for peace and stability in East Asia, the two countries agreed to build a political relationship based on mutual trust, increase cultural and educational exchange, bolster economic cooperation, and collaborate to build an East Asian order founded on openness, transparency, and inclusiveness.
As the showdown between Japan and China over the fate of the Chinese fisherman now in Japanese custody intensifies, it is worth asking what the process of "unfreezing" the Sino-Japanese relationship since 2006 has accomplished, and whether that process will survive this dispute — or whether this standoff marks the beginning of a new, uncertain period in the relationship.
With each passing day it becomes clearer that the answer to the first question is "not much." The two countries' leaders have talked more frequently and exchanged state visits. Japanese leaders have avoided the deliberately provocative actions regarding wartime history that led to the deep freeze in the first place. Chinese leaders have at various times acknowledged and praised Japan for its peaceful development during the postwar period. But arguably no progress has been made to defuse the truly potent issues in the relationship, starting with the Senkakus.
This dispute was a hard test for the "new" Sino-Japanese relationship, as it concerns important symbolic issues — sovereignty over the Senkakus and the incarceration by Japan of a Chinese national, an "abduction" of sorts in Chinese eyes — and is therefore precisely the kind of issue that appeals to Chinese insecurity about its regional and international status, making unlikely to be resolved by Tokyo's appeals to handle the issue calmly and without resorting to nationalistic posturing. Of course the strategic, reciprocal relationship failed the test. China has steadily applied pressure on Japan, canceling cultural and political exchanges and possibly banning the export of rare earth elements (although for the record, the Japanese government has not confirmed whether there is in fact an export ban and the Chinese government has denied that there is any such ban).
As important as the resumption of normal relations between Tokyo and Beijing has been, it is worth asking whether the "strategic, reciprocal" relationship agenda will ever result in the kind of bilateral relationship rooted in trust that would limit the ability of this kind of issue from escalating into a more serious crisis. As long as anti-Japanese sentiment remains widespread, making a hard line towards Japan in disputes politically expedient, as China's policymaking process remains opaque, making it difficult to know how or why decisions are made, and as China remains acutely sensitive to insults to its national pride, it seems unlikely that the underlying dynamics of the political relationship will change. The economic relationship will undoubtedly remain important, but it is unlikely that economic interdependence will spill over into the political relationship — in either country. While Bruce Einhorn argues at Business Week that Japan "can't afford" a fight with China, Daniel Drezner suggests that attempts by China to use economic links to exert pressure on Japan could very well backfire and lead Tokyo to dig in its heels. Contrary to Einhorn's presumption, the impact of economic interdependence on Sino-Japanese political ties is arguably negligible. If anything the impact has been negative, leading China to believe that it has more leverage over Japan than it might otherwise have.
What about the Kan government's response to this dispute? Peter Ennis notes that there has been no sign of disagreement between Kan, Chief Cabinet Secretary Sengoku Yoshito, and the new Foreign Minister Maehara Seiji, all of whom have not responded to Chinese pressure by upping the rhetorical ante or responding in kind. This stance suggests that far from hearing the "wake-up call" that Dan Twining believes China is sending to Japan, the Kan government remains committed to the "strategic, reciprocal" program, persisting in the belief that forbearance by Japan will bear fruit over the long term if it leads China to learn to trust its neighbors.
In other words, in the aftermath of this dispute the Kan government will likely recommit to the pursuit of constructive cooperation with China, however unlikely it is that this approach will produce tangible results in the short run. The DPJ will be criticized by people like Abe for being "not understanding international politics," but it is unlikely that it will change course in foreign policy, and certainly not in the direction favored by hawks in Washington. When considering Japan's approach to China it is necessary to note that while the Japanese public wants their government to stand up for Japan in disputes with China, Japanese citizens are not clamoring for defense spending increases to match China's military modernization program or more assertive diplomacy to contain China's growing influence. As such, the Kan government's response to China's posturing may not be herald a "new realism" in the DPJ's foreign policy thinking but is instead perfectly consistent with its approach since taking power last year. (I've argued repeatedly that, Hatoyama's woolly-headed rhetoric notwithstanding, the DPJ has been remarkably realist in its diplomatic maneuverings since the beginning of its tenure.)
In doing so, the Kan government will be gambling that over the long term engagement will work. Given how little has been accomplished since 2006, it is an unappealing gamble — but the alternatives are worse. Economic interdependence may not make political cooperation inevitable, but it means that the Japanese government has an interest in talking with China regularly. The approach pursued by Japanese governments since 2006 essentially means keeping the Sino-Japanese relationship in a holding pattern, finding areas to cooperate while maintaining the status quo over issues like the East China Sea, perhaps in the hope that over time China will become more satisfied and less predisposed to forcing changes in the status quo. It may be a foolish gamble, but the alternative, the creation of a de facto Asian NATO, would be far worse, providing hardliners in Beijing with signs of encirclement and virtually guaranteeing that China will not limit itself to small maritime "provocations." It would be a fine example of what Bismarck said of preventive war, "committing suicide for fear of death."
Despite being an unsatisfactory option, the "strategic, reciprocal" relationship may well here to stay.