Japan-China Relations under the Long-term Administration of Xi Jinping: Current Status, Prospects, and Expectations

Kazuyuki Suwa


The 20th National Congress of the Communist Party of China (CPC) is approaching. Persistence in a zero-COVID-19 policy, with a resulting economic slowdown, and support for Russia carrying on its aggression against Ukraine --- all of these factors are contributing to destabilizing the Xi Jinping administration. On the other hand, the recent military exercises with the unification of Taiwan in mind, seem to help enhance the legitimacy of the Xi administration, which places absolute value on "strength."

Despite these tumultuous situations at home and abroad, Xi Jinping's reelection for a third consecutive term as general secretary of the CPC appears to be a foregone conclusion. The first reason for this is that Xi Jinping, the supreme leader of China, seems to desire a long-term administration. 1 Secondly, he has yet to build a system that will secure his person after stepping down from power. 2 Thirdly, Xi has no political rival so influential as to threaten his position, and public discontent is unlikely to escalate to the extent of ousting the supreme leader from power. Fourthly, at this point, no heir apparent has appeared to replace Xi. Fifthly, the so-called "two-term (ten-year) limit for the office of general secretary" has not yet become customary. Sixthly, such a frequently quoted internal rule does not seem to be effective as "seven up, eight down" (only CPC leaders aged 67 or younger at the time of being elected as a member of the Standing Committee of the Central Political Bureau can be promoted to or remain in top posts).

Since it would be risky for Xi Jinping to make policy changes just before the Party Congress, he will likely pursue the traditional policy of emphasizing "strength" in domestic and foreign policies.

This essay discusses Japan-China relations based on the assumption that the Xi Jinping administration will last long. Its structure is as follows. First, it points out that the "hard-line foreign policy" of the Xi Jinping administration is the continuation and development of the Hu Jintao administration's. Second, it estimates that the Xi Jinping administration, which advocates "strength," will use the Ukraine crisis as a new factor to strengthen its hard-line stance toward Japan. Third, it recommends that Japan should maintain a posture of "confrontation and cooperation" and aim for "good competitive relations" in the medium- to long-term. 3

1. From Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping

Although Xi Jinping's hard-line foreign policy is often considered peculiar to him, it is a continuation and development of the hawkish policy line adopted by the second Hu Jintao administration.

Xi Jinping's predecessor, Hu Jintao, inherited the policy of "conceal one's talents and bide one's time (韜光養晦)," which was adopted as a "makeshift" policy in the wake of the June 4 Tiananmen Square protests. However, this low-profile foreign policy, under which China achieved steady economic development, reached a turning point in 2006 under the Hu administration. At the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference held from August 21 to 23 of the same year, Hu Jintao stated that China would "safeguard national sovereignty, security, and development interests." 4 This meant that China, which had, with a low-profile posture, cooperated with the international community and gained much from the existing international order through its accession to the WTO, would take an inward-looking stance as it became a superpower and, as a result, would definitely oppose "pressure" from abroad. 5 This hard-line stance surfaced in Japan-China relations in 2008.

On May 7, 2008, Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and President Hu Jintao, who was then visiting Japan, signed the "Joint Statement between the Government of Japan and the Government of the People's Republic of China on Comprehensive Promotion of a ‘Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests'" ("The fourth political document"). Thanks to this trend in good bilateral relations, the "Understanding on Joint Development in the East China Sea" and other documents appeared on June 18. 6 However, the following day, Wu Dawei, Vice Minister of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and former ambassador to Japan, held a press conference and stated, "the consensus reached between China and Japan on the East China Sea issue has ‘two important premises': ‘the consensus does not undermine China's sovereign rights and jurisdiction in the East China Sea' and ‘the Japanese side agreed to recognize that the sovereign rights of the Chunxiao oil and gas field belong to China.'" 7 At the outset of the press conference, Wu mentioned that "Chinese net citizens have also keen interest in the Understanding." The sudden press conference assumed the appearance of a place to offer excuses in fear of a public backlash at home. 8 This was effectively a declaration of the abrogation of the agreement reached between the top leaders of Japan and China. Furthermore, on December 8, two Chinese official vessels intruded, for the first time, into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands. Reportedly, this intrusion was an independent action by the State Oceanic Administration without the approval of the CPC Central Committee. 9

Xi Jinping, who took office immediately after Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands, needed to demonstrate that he was a strong leader; he took a more hard-line stance toward Japan. In those days, the Japan-China relationship was considered the worst since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972. Indeed, a series of incidents symbolized this. On January 30, 2013, a Chinese naval vessel beamed its fire-control radar at a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer in the open waters of the East China Sea. Judging from the dismay of the spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs when asked at a regular press conference about the background of the incident, it appears that the incident occurred in the context of domestic politics with which the Ministry was not concerned. And on November 23, 2013, the Chinese Ministry of National Defense suddenly announced the establishment of an air defense identification zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea on the very same day, shocking Japan and the world. On February 25, 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People's Congress decided to designate September 3 as "Victory Day of the Chinese People's War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression" and December 13 as the "National Memorial Day for the Victims of the Nanjing Massacre." The antagonistic relationship between Japan and China served as a political tool for China's national unity. Incidentally, during this period, China tended to ignore Japan in its foreign policy. China went so far as to exclude the Japan-China relationship, which had traditionally occupied the position of major-power diplomacy; it did not discuss the bilateral relationship even in association with its diplomacy with neighboring countries.

However, this unnatural state in the bilateral relationship began to improve in the wake of the Japan-China summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping on November 10, 2014, during the Beijing APEC meetings. But the absence of the national flags of both countries in the room of the summit meeting that should have included them and the absence of a smile on the face of the host Xi Jinping are reflective of the real nature of Chinese foreign policy, which is obliged to be attentive to the "aggressive public opinion abhorring weakness." Xi Jinping, who says "for the people" at every turn, seems to be, in a sense, a captive of the people or of public opinion.

2. "Once-in-a-Century Period of Change" and China's Policy toward Japan

Chinese foreign policy is notable by the fact that it seeks to identify the "trends of the age," clarify its own role and objectives, and pursue the maximization of its national interests.

According to Xi Jinping, the current international community is in the midst of a "once-in-a-century period of change." He noted this in a speech to participants in the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs held at the end of December 2017. In response to the then US President Trump's designating China as a "competitor" alongside Russia in the "National Security Strategy" released just before the conference, Xi set forth that since the turn of the century, many emerging and developing countries have developed rapidly; the international trend of the accelerated development of the world's multipolarity is irreversible." 10 In June of the following year, at the Central Foreign Affairs Commission, Xi Jinping stated, "At present, our country is in the best period of development since modern times, while the world is undergoing profound changes unseen in a century. The two are synchronized and intertwined with each other." Thus, he expressed his strong will to build a new international order. 11 In other words, he intended to create a new set of values to replace the Western values of freedom, democracy, human rights, and the rule of law.

As noted above, Japan-China relations began to turn for the better after November 2014. They improved so much as to have President Xi's visit to Japan scheduled in the diplomatic agenda in the wake of Prime Minister Abe's visit to China in December 2019. However, afterward, grave problems emerged in succession, such as the exacerbation of the US-China confrontation, the COVID-19 pandemic allegedly originating in China, and the crackdown on democracy in Hong Kong by the central government in Beijing. Then followed China's support for the Russian invasion of Ukraine and military exercises around Taiwan this year, which have again plunged China-Japan relations into grave difficulties.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine led to the deepening of the Japan-US alliance, the strengthening of cooperation between Japan and NATO in Europe, and the highlighting of the QUAD (Japan-US-Australia-India) framework in Asia. With these developments as background, there is little likelihood that Japan and China will improve their stance toward each other in the short term. Although this year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan, the present political situation in the two countries prevents them from celebrating it. The announcement released by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs following the May 18 Japan-China foreign ministers' video conference did not include "the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China" 12

For the time being, China's hard-line diplomacy toward Japan will take the form of the following actions as necessary.

First, China's opposition to the strengthening of Japan-US relations will intensify. For example, at a regular press conference of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on May 23, 2022, when the Japan-US summit took place, the spokesperson, when asked to comment on Biden's remarks regarding the defense of Taiwan, expressed "intense dissatisfaction and firm opposition." He further stated regarding Japan that "Japan owes a historical crime to the Chinese people on the Taiwan issue, so it should be more cautious in its words and actions, learn the lessons of history, and avoid repeating the same mistakes." 13 Moreover, on June 29, the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo issued a press release stating that "Japan must stop going further down the wrong path" in response to "negative moves concerning China" at the G7 summit. 14

The second is China's strengthening military pressure in the waters surrounding Japan. What is most problematic is the frequent intrusion into the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands by Chinese vessels, including those belonging to the China Coast Guard. Their entry into the Japanese contiguous zone around the Senkakus continues almost daily, while their intrusion into the Japanese territorial waters once to three times a month. Between June 21 and 23, 2022, two CCG vessels stayed for 64 hours in the territorial waters of the Senkaku Islands --- the longest time of continuous intrusion since the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012. Next is the above-mentioned issue of gas field development in the East China Sea. China's unilateral gas field development in the area from 2008 resulted in the construction of a total of 18 structures in the adjacent waters west of the Japan-China median line as of June of this year, in defiance of the repeated protests of the Japanese government. Furthermore, in recent years, Chinese military demonstrations have frequently been conducted in the vicinity of Japan; there is a possibility that China and Russia will jointly mount pressure on Japan from now. Comparing four months on either side of February 24, 2022, when the Russian invasion of Ukraine began, the number of joint military actions by Chinese and Russian forces around the Japanese archipelago increased 2.5 times after the incident. 15

Third, China will continue to oppose Japan's policy toward Taiwan. On August 5, 2022 (the second day of China's recent military exercises), during the East Asia Summit (EAS) Foreign Ministers' meeting in Cambodia, the Chinese and Russian foreign ministers left the conference room as soon as Japanese Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi began speaking. At a regular press conference of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs on the same day, the spokesperson stated: "Japanese leaders have of late been behaving offensively regarding the Taiwan issue; the Chinese people are very discontent. Japan bears serious historical guilt on the Taiwan issue and is not qualified to say anything about Taiwan. Today the Japanese Prime Minister made unreasonable accusations against China during his meeting with Pelosi. During the serial foreign ministers' meetings on cooperation in East Asia, the Japanese Foreign Minister followed the US Secretary of State in spreading false information about China and making unreasonable accusations against China. China is firmly opposed to this." 16 Given the recent military exercises threatening Japan's security, we cannot help but conclude that the above is quite an off-the-mark and irrational statement.

The fourth bone of contention is the issue of the disposal of contaminated water from TEPCO's Fukushima nuclear power plant complex. On April 13, 2021, the Japanese government approved a plan to release more than 1 million tons of treated contaminated water containing radioactive materials discharged from the No. 1 Nuclear Power Plant, which was destroyed by the Great East Japan Earthquake, into the Pacific Ocean off Fukushima Prefecture. China vehemently opposed the plan from the outset. In this connection, it is still fresh in our memory that a spokesperson of the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs criticized the Japanese government by posting on Twitter, as a token of protest, a maliciously processed image of the famous "Kanagawaoki Namiura" view from the proverbial "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (Fugaku Sanjurokkei)" authored by Katsushika Hokusai. At many rounds of the Chinese Foreign Ministry press conference, criticism of Japan's treated water release plan has since recurred in the form of answering Chinese media reporters' prearranged questions. Such criticism has also appeared in international arenas. For example, at the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty (NPT) Review Conference held in New York on August 2, 2022, the Chinese representative urged the Japanese side to "seriously respond to the legitimate concerns of neighboring countries and the international community at large …and find an appropriate solution to the disposal of the nuclear-contaminated water." 17

3. Confrontation, Cooperation and Good Competition

The series of policies, including persistence in a zero-COVID-19 policy, reflect the personal motives of Xi Jinping, who desires to "stably" survive the upcoming 20th Party Congress and enter his third term. Therefore, China's established policy --- domestic or foreign --- will be hard to change. As noted above, China's hard-line attitude toward Japan will unlikely change very soon.

A consensus was reached between the leaders of Japan and China on the "building of constructive and stable relations" during the Japan-China summit teleconference held on October 8, 2021, following the formation of the Fumio Kishida Cabinet. This is the goal that both countries should pursue for the time being. Although it is not easy to implement this goal, I would like to discuss "confrontation, cooperation, and good competition as a result" from a longer-term perspective.

When discussing Japan's stance toward China, "determinedness" is often referred to, but "confrontation" should be preferred to eliminate ambiguity. In Japan-China bilateral relations, Japan needs to work out measures to prevent China's provocative actions in the waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands and unilateral gas field development in the East China Sea. To this end, defense force development and the strengthening of the Japan-US alliance are prerequisites for Japan. As for its relations with third countries and organizations, Japan should prioritize strengthening cooperation with NATO, the EU, the QUAD, and especially with ASEAN and its member states. However, the diplomatic stance of each ASEAN country differs from those of European countries, as evidenced by the fact that Singapore is the only one of the ten ASEAN member states that joined sanctions against Russia. These differences are noticeable in their policies toward China, which vary widely from confrontational (Vietnam) to quasi-alliance (Cambodia). According to a recent survey conducted by the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, China is a more vital partner than Japan for many ASEAN member countries. The survey asked the following two questions to respondents in nine countries (excluding Myanmar): "What country is an important partner to you now?" and "What country will be your most important partner in the future?" The percentage of survey respondents to both questions who preferred China was higher than those who chose Japan. 18 Many say that democracy is in a difficult situation in Asia. But Japan must build, with ASEAN members, cooperative relationships that do not overemphasize human rights and the rule of law but are attentive to the actual situation in each country and are distinguishable from China's diplomacy toward ASEAN. Taiwan, as well as ASEAN, occupy a crucial position in Japan's diplomacy toward China. China attempts to exclude the involvement of other countries in the Taiwan issue, claiming that "the Taiwan issue is China's internal affair." However, a contingency in Taiwan is precisely a contingency for Japan. This is because Yonaguni Island, Japan's westernmost island, is located only 110 km away from Taiwan Island; a ballistic missile fired by the Chinese military on August 4, 2022 fell in the waters just 80 kilometers from Yonaguni Island --- this was the falling point nearest to the Japanese territory. In addition, the Taiwan Strait is a sea lane of vital importance to Japan. With this sense of crisis and an understanding of Taiwan's growing sense of identity as background, Japan must more than ever carefully and steadily strengthen Japan-Taiwan relations and endeavor to ensure the security of the Taiwan Strait. 19

Turning now to "cooperation," it is, by all means, necessary to establish confidence-building measures between the defense authorities of Japan and China. A hotline based on the "Sea-Air Liaison Mechanism" must be created as soon as possible to avoid any accidental clashes between the JSDF and the Chinese military. The establishment of cooperative relations in third-country markets agreed upon under the Abe administration should also be promoted.

I want to draw attention to some data that encourages addressing the issue of "cooperation." Despite public perception and discourses in Japan that Japanese sentiments toward China are generally bad, Japanese youth entertain quite favorable sentiments toward China. According to a Cabinet Office survey conducted in September 2021, the highest number of respondents who feel "friendly" (including "rather friendly") toward China are found among 18- to 29-year-olds, who account for 41.5% of the respondents who entertain a friendly feeling toward China. The percentage figure is much higher than the lowest 13.2%, which represents those aged 70 and over who feel friendly toward China. 20 Our expectations are high for those young people who may be involved in future exchanges and cooperation between the two countries. I have come to this firm conclusion through my recent experience. In June and July of this year, the "Japan-China Relations Forum," for which I serve as secretary, held a Japan-China student exchange program jointly with the "Japan-China Student Conference" and the "JING Forum," two leading Japan-China student exchange groups in Japan. I noted the students are free from prejudice to the bilateral exchanges, which is something missing in the people of my generation.

Through the efforts of both nations, we should reduce the areas of confrontation and increase those of cooperation to build a "good competitive relationship." This is my medium- to long-term image of Japan-China relations. Using the Chinese way of expression, this would be "dialectical thinking aiming for a good competitive relationship through confrontation and cooperation."

However, such an idea may be blamed for being too unrealistic under the current circumstances. This may be especially true about the Taiwan issue, which China regards as "the core of its core interests." 21 On the other hand, if we turn our attention to China-Russian relations, which constitute an obstacle to improving Japan-China relations, we may nonetheless note in the very bilateral relationship possibilities and opportunities to improve China's hard-line stance toward Japan.

First, it should be noted that there is some "hesitation" in China's "supportive" stance toward Russia. On July 28, 2022, the two leaders of the United States and China held a telephone conversation. Regarding the Ukraine issue, the Chinese official media briefly reported that "the leaders of the two countries exchanged views on the Ukraine crisis and other issues, and President Xi Jinping reiterated China's principled position." 22 The Chinese media also skipped mention of the Ukraine issue in its coverage of the China-Russia foreign ministers' meeting held on the same day. 23 These Chinese reportages seem to have intended to not unnecessarily irritate the international community, especially Western governments, and public opinion.

Second, as history testifies, the interests of China and Russia (China and the Soviet Union) did not always coincide, nor were their bilateral relations always friendly. The Soviet Union did not manifest its support for the CPC in the post-World War II civil war. At the time of the Korean War, it forced communist China, which had just been born, to fight in its place. The tension between the two countries reached its apex in the 1969 border dispute. Although the bilateral relations became normalized after Gorbachev visited Beijing in 1989, the pending border demarcation did not end until 2008. 24

In 1971, the United States and China took steps forward to improve their relations in the face of the common threat from the Soviet Union. Japan and China also moved the following year. These era-defining political decisions changed the world situation a great deal. The year 2022 marks the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations. Could Japan and China not work together on this occasion to uphold the common goal of "stabilizing the international order, which is in turmoil due to the Ukraine crisis, and take the lead in the construction of a new world order?" Things changed from 1971-1972, and China and Russia now maintain a relationship that they proudly declare to be the "best in history." However, continuing to side with Russia, which continuously commits brutal acts of genocide and deepens its isolation in the international community, is unquestionably a disgrace to China that claims to "realize its dream of a great revival of the Chinese nation by the middle of this century." However, even if China unilaterally changed its foreign stance, the current Japan-China relations would not improve; still less, China would, in the first place, not sit at the negotiation table to discuss the improvement of the bilateral relations. The United States, the only country that China must learn from and surpass, should consider changing its confrontational stance toward China. Japan, which has reinforced its position as an ally in current US diplomacy, should proactively work on the United States.


Since clarifying his support for Russia's invasion of Ukraine, Chinese Foreign Affairs Minister Wang Yi has been prospering in his profession. He has been desperately engaged in dedicated diplomatic activities as if to make up for the absence of President Xi Jinping on the world stage, who has not traveled abroad since the outbreak of the COVID-19 infection.

First, regarding diplomatic activities initiated by China to involve multilateral organizations, Wang Yi attended the "China + Central Asia (C+C5) Foreign Ministers' meeting" in Kazakhstan on June 8, 2022 and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization Foreign Ministers' meeting in Uzbekistan on July 29. He also hosted the virtual BRICS Foreign Ministers' Meeting on May 19.

Also, in the Asia-Pacific region, where US engagement weakened in the Trump era, China's active diplomacy is underway. In early April 2022, Wang Yi invited the ASEAN foreign ministers of Indonesia, Myanmar, Thailand, and the Philippines to Anhui in central China for three days to hold talks with each of them. On August 4, Wang co-chaired the China-ASEAN Foreign Ministers' Meeting in Phnom Penh; on the following August 5, he attended the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF) Foreign Ministers' Meeting, also in Phnom Penh. In addition, China has been increasing its influence over the South Pacific island countries, which are a strategically important region for the United States, Australia, and other countries, and are under the strong influence of Taiwan. From late May to early June, Wang visited eight Pacific island countries in the region and co-chaired the second China-Pacific Island Countries Foreign Ministers' Meeting.

It appears that in some of these events, China failed to achieve its original objectives despite Wang's diplomatic efforts. 25 However, it is undeniable that China's policy of expanding its camp, aimed at winning the struggle with the United States, has achieved some success chiefly in its relations with emerging and developing countries.

Subordinating Russia, whose national power has diminished significantly due to the Ukraine war, to a junior partner, China has embarked on a struggle for hegemony with the United States as a self-proclaimed "eternal partner of developing countries." Furthermore, it is pushing forward with the reunification of Taiwan, ignoring the will of the Taiwanese people, to at last declare triumphantly the fulfillment of its pre-established goal, "We have won the battle with the United States and realized the great revival of the Chinese nation." For Xi Jinping, this may mean leaving a legacy in history surpassing that of founding hero Mao Zedong. However, I cannot think that this option is the best course of action for China, which self-proclaims as a "responsible superpower" amid a "once-in-a-century period of change."

(Professor, University of Shizuoka)

(Translation by Tsutomu Inuzuka)

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