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Politics & Security

[Speaking Out] All Issues Outstanding: Japan Needs Countermeasures to Resolve Problems with China

Diplomacy has resolved none of the major issues with China. Japan needs its own counterespionage law and other measures if it wants to see results.

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Prime Minister Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping stand together on November 16 in San Francisco. (© Pool photo via Kyodo)

At their first meeting in a year, the top Japanese and Chinese leaders reaffirmed the comprehensive promotion of a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests." However, they failed to resolve key outstanding issues. These included China's detention of Japanese nationals, Chinese maritime buoys in Japan's exclusive economic zone around the Senkaku Islands, and China's total embargo of Japanese seafood.

Epitomizing the Problem

According to the Nikkei Shimbun newspaper, at a reception held in Beijing in October, Japanese Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi described the concept. Tarumi is the ambassador who coined the concept of a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests." 

According to Tarumi, the concept is "not only focusing on specific bilateral issues but also tenaciously enhancing bilateral communications to stabilize Japan-China relations for mutual strategic interests, even if there are various outstanding issues." 

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, who was also at the reception, reportedly expressed his consent to and admiration for what the ambassador said.

Japan's Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi gives a speech at a symposium commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. October 25 in Beijing. (©Kyodo)

Forgetting Priorities and Losing Leverage

While it is important for the Japanese and Chinese leaders to reaffirm the "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" and continue dialogue, specific bilateral issues should not be left unattended. 

The rescue of Japanese nationals detained in China is the highest priority issue for Japan to address as a nation. Yet in San Francisco, no matter how much Prime Minister Fumio Kishida "conveyed Japan's positions on all the outstanding issues" (as explained by an aide to Kishida) to Chinese President Xi Jinping, the Chinese leader would not be moved. 

That is because Japan has no countermeasures to Chinese actions.

A banner promoting "national security" is displayed in a park in Shijiazhuang, Hebei Province, China. It was posted in April 2023, after China amended its counterespionage law. (©Kyodo)

Enact a Counterespionage Law

At least 17 Japanese nationals have been detained in China since a counterespionage law was implemented in 2014. That was under Xi Jinping's leadership. Five of them have not been released. Among them is a male employee of Astellas Pharma who was officially arrested in October 2023. 

In July, China put into effect a revised counterespionage law to strengthen its investigative powers.

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Many countries, including the United States, also have their own counterespionage laws. They have taken advantage of such laws to lead China to release their compatriots in exchange for Chinese spies detained in their own countries. However, Japan cannot take such measures as it has no counterespionage law.

Japan Innovation Party lawmaker Shigefumi Matsuzawa called for Japan's enactment of a counterespionage law. That was at the House of Councillors Foreign Affairs and Defense Committee on November 9. When he did so, Foreign Minister Yoko Kamikawa only said, "The matter should be carefully examined from multidirectional points of view." 

Japan's ruling and opposition parties should work to enact a counterespionage law at an early date. Even if it is only to prompt China to release Japanese detainees as soon as possible.

A Chinese maritime buoy. (From the website of the Institute of Oceanography, Chinese Academy of Sciences)
The sushi section of a supermarket in Beijing. It's sign says: Not imported from Japan." On August 29. (©Kyodo)

Cannot Depend on Communications Alone

The same thing can also be said about the Chinese embargo of Japanese seafood. And for that matter, the presence of Chinese maritime buoys in Japan's EEZ. These issues will not be resolved through bilateral communications alone.

This year marks the 45th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. Meanwhile, Japan should keep in mind that China today is not the China of 45 years ago.

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(A version of this article was first published by the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals. Find it in Speaking Out #1092 in Japanese on November 20 and in English on November 22, 2023.)

Author: Takashi Arimoto

Takashi Arimoto is a Planning Committee member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals and publisher of Monthly Magazine SEIRON at the Sankei Shimbun newspaper.

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