The Beijing-Tokyo relationship is an important relationship in the global context. Economically, China and Japan are the second and third largest economies in the world. Both also possess significant military capabilities and Japan is an ally of the US, and hosts US military facilities. However, these countries have long been uneasy maritime neighbours and in the recent past the bilateral relationship has been even frostier than usual. Since 2010, a series of maritime incidents have sullied bilateral political and security ties.
China and Japan disagree over the sovereignty of a cluster of islets, known as Senkaku in Japanese or Diaoyu in Chinese. Tokyo does not recognise the existence of a dispute over the islands. Japan currently has administrative control over the islands.
In 2010, China accused Japan of changing the status quo with the arrest of a Chinese fishing vessel captain after the fishing vessel rammed a Japanese Coast Guard vessel near the islands . Beijing also sees the Japanese Government's purchase of some of the islands from their private owner in 2012 as a provocative action. In return, Japan is unhappy with increased patrols by Chinese maritime enforcement fleets. Tokyo is displeased with an incident in 2013 where a Chinese naval vessel reportedly locked its fire control radar onto a nearby Japanese vessel.
In 2013 Beijing also announced an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ), requiring all civilian and military aircraft to identify themselves when flying within a defined zone that extended beyond China's maritime territory. There was a lack of consultation before the announcement according to the Japanese side. Also the ADIZ included disputed areas such as the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and another land feature that is part of a dispute between China and South Korea. Beijing does point out that other countries also have ADIZs.
Despite this concerning trend of confrontational events, it should be noted that since late 2013 Chinese maritime patrols in the waters around the Senkakus/Diaoyus have become less frequent and more predictable, lessening the chance of an accidental incident near the islands.
Frosty relations between China and Japan - although quite distinct from another maritime sovereignty dispute involving China in the South China Sea - have recently become more regional in nature with the US, Japan and others calling for a rules-based approach to maritime incidents. These comments, either explicitly or implicitly, are directed at a more assertive and capable Chinese maritime presence. Beijing, for its part, has described this as a provocation.
There are historical issues from Japan's occupation of parts of China during the 20th century that still remain unresolved today. Beijing feels that Japan has not atoned for its occupation and aggressive actions in the second World War. Also, visits by Japanese leaders, most recently by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, to the Yasukuni Shrine which houses 14 Class A war criminals elicit a sharp rebuke from Beijing.
The Korean Peninsula
The Korean Peninsula also plays a role in China-Japan relations. South Korea, like Japan, is a US ally but this does not mean the two are the friendliest of neighbours. Their relationship, as with Beijing-Tokyo ties, is weighed down with historical baggage. This inhibits three-way programs such as negotiations for a trilateral free trade agreement between China, Japan and South Korea.
Japan, the US and South Korea also have a common interest in seeing a more predictable North Korea. All three, including Japan, would like China to play a more proactive role in stopping North Korean missile tests (which in the past have travelled over Japanese territory), nuclear tests and border skirmishes. There is a perception in Japan that China is the only external nation that can influence North Korean actions.
What the Lowy Institute does
The Lowy Institute has strong depth in Japan and China expertise, with International Security Program Director Euan Graham, East Asia Program Director Merriden Varrall, and Nonresident Fellows Murray McLean AO and Malcom Cook all specialising on China or Japan. Other analysts such as Nonresident Fellow Rory Medcalf provide regional security and maritime context to this most important of relationships. There is also regular expert commentary analysing the China-Japan relationship on the Lowy Interpreter.