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EDITORIAL | Japan-China Relations Too Strained to be Window-dressed

Japan-China diplomatic word games hide the true dangers of Chinese intrusions in the Senkakus, unjust detentions, unfounded seafood ban, and other threats.



Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr., US President Joe Biden and Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House in Washington DC on April 11. (©REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque)

The governments of Japan and China have agreed that they will comprehensively promote a "mutually beneficial strategic relationship." However, no phrase could be less apt for describing the current state of Japan-China relations. 

In fact, there is a real danger that Japanese travelers and companies could accept this platitude at face value. That could lead them to take mistaken approaches in their dealings with China. The harsh international situation in which China is a threat and concern to Japan's national and economic security is a reality that Japanese companies cannot neglect to face directly.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and other government officials would do well to stop playing word games. They need to scrap expressions like "mutually beneficial strategic relationship" that are so out of tune with our times. 

Prime Minister Kishida and President Biden shake hands at a welcome ceremony at the White House on April 10, 2024. (© Kyodo)

A Different Direction from Deterrence

On his recent trip to Washington DC, Prime Minister Kishida agreed with US President Joe Biden for our two countries to cooperate on defense measures to improve our deterrence capabilities. Furthermore, at a trilateral summit involving the leaders of Japan, the US, and the Philippines, our three nations agreed to strengthen security cooperation. These agreements were prompted by China's pressure on Japan and the Philippines respectively in the East and South China Seas

Prime Minister Kishida also emphasized this in his speech to the US Congress. He said that China is the "greatest strategic challenge" not only to Japan but also to peace and the stability of the international community. 

Subsequently, on April 16, immediately after the Prime Minister's return, the 2024 Diplomatic Bluebook was presented to the Cabinet. It cited the comprehensive promotion of a "mutually beneficial strategic relationship" with China, referencing terminology from the November 2023 Japan-China Summit in San Francisco. 

This was the first such use in the Diplomatic Bluebook in five years. The Prime Minister reiterated this stance while taking questions in the Diet on April 19. 

China threat
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in June 2019. (Pool photograph)

History of the Concept

The idea of a "mutually beneficial strategic relationship" implies that the two sides will engage in dialogue concerning outstanding issues and cooperate in areas that require cooperation. The concept was initially proposed by then-Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during his visit to China in 2006. 

Under the next prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda, the two countries issued a joint statement declaring their intention to promote the concept comprehensively. But from 2018, as bilateral relations deteriorated, it ceased to be part of the dialogue. 

So what is the current revival of the slogan? Is it the result of consensus between Japanese diplomats who do not want to rock the boat and Chinese diplomats eager to reduce friction with Japan due to China's economic slowdown and deteriorating relationship with the United States?


Dialogue and cooperation between Japan and China should certainly be pursued. But the relationship can no longer be described as a "mutually beneficial strategic relationship." 

Japan-China maritime
Japan Coast Guard tracks China Coast Guard vessel near Senkaku Islands, Ishigaki City, Okinawa in January 2022. (Provided by Ishigaki City)

Overwhelmed by China's Belligerent Behavior

Beijing has been trying to seize the Senkaku Islands. It has arbitrarily detained Japanese nationals without cause. Without scientific justification, it has criticized the release of ALPS treated water into the ocean from TEPCO's Fukushima Daiichi Nuclear Power Plant. It has even imposed an unfounded seafood ban against the import of marine products from Japan. 

Moreover, the Prime Minister himself has often said, "Today's Ukraine could be tomorrow's East Asia." That is because of concern that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan could quickly become a crisis for Japan.

If the Japanese government glosses over the actual situation by using the empty platitude "mutually beneficial strategic relationship," the Japanese people might let down their guard. The Chinese leadership might conclude Japan is a pushover, which would endanger our national interest.


(Read the editorial in Japanese.)

Author: Editorial Board, The Sankei Shimbun