A Japanese Coast Guard vessel chases a Chinese fishing boat near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands in November, 2011. It is widely alleged that Beijing is weaponizing fishing fleets for strategic ends in disputed waters. Photo: AFP /Japan Coast Guard / Jiji Press

TOKYO – Amid constant tensions across the Taiwan Strait and as Japanese hawks agitate for a Japanese stance on the issue, the Chinese and Japanese defense ministers held talks Monday.

Tokyo’s Nobuo Kishi held a video meeting with Beijing’s Wei Fenghe for about two hours. Both waxed hot and cold in their first meeting since December 2018.

Kishi, who sought the meeting, expressed grave concerns over what he calls unilateral attempts by Beijing to alter the status quo of the region by force. Wei railed against recent Japanese drills near the disputed Senkaku/Diouyu Islands, and urged Japan to heed the lessons of history.

The two did, however, agree to establish an emergency means of communication in case any urgent situation arose. 

The usual blather

According to what he said at a press conference subsequently, Kishi lamented the current state of affairs in the East China Sea, including waters around the Japanese-controlled Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, which lie west of Okinawa. The Japanese government maintains the islands are an inherent part of Japan’s territory, but China and Taiwan also lay claim to them.

Kishi expressed his “serious concern” over a series of incursions by Chinese vessels into territorial waters around the islands, which are administered by Okinawa Prefecture. He expressed his opposition to Chinese incursions by civil and government vessels and urged Beijing to exercise self-control.

Additionally, Kishi said that peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are fundamental to Japan’s national security and the safety of the international community, adding that Japan is continuously monitoring the situation closely.

Beijing’s moves to increase defense spending and the modernization and expansion of its forces have become a source of international concern, Kishi said. He asked that China act responsibly.

Japanese Defense Minister NobuoKishi said peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait are fundamental to Japan’s national security. Photo: AFP

Wei pushed back. According to an announcement by China’s Ministry of National Defense, he insisted that “China will resolutely defend its territorial sovereignty and maritime rights and interests” with regard to the islands.

According to Beijing’s state-run media The Global Times, Wei also expressed concern about reports that Japan had recently conducted a defense training exercise under a scenario in which “foreign forces” occupied the islands.

The Japanese military drill near the islands, “exposing Japan’s right-wing militarist ambitions and its failure to reflect on history, was obviously a provocation targeting China, as Japan tries to play a role in US attempts to contain China,” analysts told Global Times.

Wei also told Kishi that Japan should face squarely up to its past history and learn from it.

Regarding the foregoing, any moderately attentive observer of Sino-Japan relations could have predicted, with accuracy, what the two ministers said to each other.

Peaceline

Still, there was a tension-cooling outcome from the meeting.

The ministers agreed on a hotline between their officials by the end of next year at the latest to prevent accidental clashes between Japanese and Chinese military forces.

Kishi said after the meeting: “It is necessary to have frank communication with China because we have concerns. We will continue to promote exchanges concerning defense issues to build mutual understanding and trust.”

China’s Defense Minister Wei Fenghe said China will resolutely defend its territorial sovereignty. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

An analyst with Japan’s Ministry of Defense, speaking to Asia Times on condition of anonymity, said the security hotline would upgrade a communications mechanism launched by the two countries in 2018. This was created to avoid accidental collisions at sea and in the air.

Japan’s Kyodo News reported Monday that Japan’s Self-Defense Forces, Coast Guard and police held a two-day drill from November 20 at an uninhabited island south of Japan that shares features with the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

The exercise was aimed at improving the cooperation among the forces to prepare for “gray zone” situations that stop short of fully-fledged military attacks. Countries within the region are wary of the actions of China’s maritime militia – fishing fleets that operate with political objectives.

Meanwhile, the analyst added that the timing was right for the defense ministers’ talk.

“Japan has earned some goodwill with China by not declaring a diplomatic boycott, as did the US, and this seemed to be the time to talk and try to prevent bigger trouble down the line,” he said.

The Beijing Olympics have become a point of contention in faction-ridden ruling Liberal Democratic Party.

LDP divisions

While the United States, Britain and other countries have announced a “diplomatic boycott” of February’s Beijing Olympics and Paralympics, citing human rights concerns in China, the Japanese government decided last week not to use the term “diplomatic boycott.”

Even so, Tokyo has hedged its bets. It will not send government officials, but may send senior sports officials. The matter is still under discussion.

Beijing’s Ice Ribbon speed skating venue for the 2022 Winter Olympics. Japan has earned credit in China for refusing to join a diplomatic boycott. Photo: Beijing Olympics

Sanae Takaichi, chairman of the Political Research Committee of the Liberal Democratic Party, was highly critical of the government’s handling of the matter.  

“The government’s decision not to send ministers and other government officials to next year’s Beijing Olympic and Paralympic Games was made too late,” Takaichi, a hawk who ran against current Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in internal party elections earlier this year, said.

Takaichi, her mentor and former prime minister Shinzo Abe and other hawkish LDP figures have taken a hard stance against China lately, most particularly over the Taiwan question.

Their position on related issues – such as increased defense spend, and revisions to Japan’s pacifist constitution – has been strengthened since November’s Diet election. That plebiscite saw the rise of right-wing minority parties, which, despite being in opposition, share similar stances on these issues to the LDP.

Kishida is generally seen as more middle of the road than the right wing of the LDP, but is inevitably influenced by factional power brokers inside the party. The fact that his government initiated yesterday’s discussion with China first has already created ripples within the party. 

As China-US tensions bubble over Taiwan, Japan and China are jousting over the Senkaku/Diaoyus. Both countries are also upgrading their militaries, in areas including aircraft carriers and hypersonic missiles.

But while Quad-member Tokyo has not been as even-handed between the United States and China as has Seoul, it has not been as hardline as Canberra.