Tea Leaf Nation

Look Who’s Not Talking

Look Who’s Not Talking

TOKYO — The world’s second and third biggest economies are not talking — and that spells trouble far beyond Northeast Asia. In early July, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the most significant revision to Japan’s security policy since the end of World War II, partly in response to Chinese incursions into Japanese territorial waters in the East China Sea, where a dangerous standoff is underway over a cluster of small islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. While Abe’s new policy has generated concerns about Japan’s potential remilitarization, Washington has welcomed it as a vital boost to the U.S.-Japanese security alliance. Yet conversations with senior national security officials in Tokyo in mid-July reveal a striking absence of the bilateral communication channels necessary to defuse growing tensions between Asia’s two major powers.

High-level Japan-China talks have been in a deep freeze ever since the Japanese Government nationalized three of the Senkaku/Diaoyu in Sept. 2012, opening a prolonged diplomatic rift. Japan’s Ambassador in Beijing, Japanese sources say, lacks access to the Chinese Foreign Minister. Notwithstanding a brief and positive interaction between the two sides’ navy chiefs at a symposium in the Chinese port city Qingdao in April, discussions on an important maritime communication mechanism have been on hold since June 2012. When a Chinese frigate aimed weapons-guiding radar at a Japanese destroyer in Feb. 2013, no known hotline was in place to defuse the situation.

In 2013 alone, Abe crisscrossed the Asia-Pacific to deepen regional partnerships, spanning all 10 countries in the regional block Association of Southeast Asian Nations, then added visits to Australia, New Zealand, and Papua New Guinea in July. But he has not had a single bilateral meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping. This is not for want of effort; in July, Abe expressed a desire to meet with Xi at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November in Beijing, while a senior Japanese official reportedly secretly visited China to explore the possibility of such a meeting. But a Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman has avowed that Abe’s Dec. 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead including 14 war criminals, has "shut the door on talks with Chinese leaders."

Encouraging evidence is scant. Senior Japanese opposition politicians traveled to China in July to meet with senior officials there, including Liu Yunshan, a member of the Politburo Standing Committee, the group of seven men that runs the country. But such contacts, while valuable, cannot substitute for the institutionalized mechanisms needed to deescalate a potential incident in the East China Sea. Those channels that remain open have serious limits. Japan has used working-level talks to communicate on national security matters with Chinese officials, but Japanese counterparts say they have encountered a lack of reciprocity and transparency that may chill further information sharing. And while Japanese trade officials note the Chinese have sent "clear signals" they want economic ties to stay on track — the only Minister-level bilateral meeting that has occurred since Sept. 2012 has been between Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade, and Industry and his Chinese counterpart — business is increasingly hostage to the politics of the relationship. In the first half of 2014, Japanese investment in China plunged 50 percent.

As a result of this silence, the risk of an inadvertent escalatory incident in the East China Sea is high. Japanese officials frame their new security policy as one driven by their desire to make a "proactive contribution to peace," but it’s undergirded by deep-seated anxiety about China’s growing military power and assertiveness, the shifting balance of power in Asia, and a desire to be independent from what former Japanese ambassador to Italy Masamichi Hanabusa calls "the benevolence of other nations" like the United States.

A key driver of the new policy is China’s pattern of repeated incursions into Japanese waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu, which includes not only the Feb. 2013 frigate radar scare but also two Chinese fighter jets’ alarming decision to fly within 50 meters of Japanese surveillance planes in June. Abe’s policy would enable the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (JSDF) to respond to such provocations, which fall short of an armed attack and thus currently preclude the JSDF from responding. But ambivalence over a possible deviation from Japan’s pacifist Constitution, which in its text "forever renounce[s] war as a sovereign right," helped drive Abe’s approval ratings down by nine points the month after the policy was announced. Japan’s National Diet must pass legislation putting the policy into practice, and that push has been deferred until 2015.

Washington, which has already declared that its security treaty with Japan encompasses the Senkakus, applauds Abe’s policy. But while an ambivalent Japanese public considers the measure, Washington can do more diplomatically simply by adapting successful tactics it has already applied this year. President Barack Obama should offer to host a quadrilateral meeting on the sidelines of the upcoming APEC summit in November with Xi, Abe, and South Korean President Park Geun-hye — an extension of his trilateral meeting with the latter two in March. Xi’s inclusion would demonstrate that U.S. alliances with Japan and South Korea are not directed at containing China. The administration should also quietly suggest a freeze on escalatory activity in the East China Sea, akin to the one the U.S. State Department proposed in the South China Sea in early July.

To be sure, some analysts in Japan question the alarm with which the international community views the situation in the East China Sea. They caution that China recognizes Japan’s robust naval capabilities and that, as a result, according to a retired Japanese admiral who did not wish to be named, the dispute will likely "fly level at high tension." But that’s no solution. As the military gap between the two countries grows — China’s defense expenditures have grown by double digits almost every year for the past two decades and its military budget far eclipses Japan’s — political and diplomatic off-ramps will be all the more vital to avoid a collision. The peace and prosperity that has allowed Northeast Asia to emerge as the engine of the 21st century global economy is too precious to lose over a simple failure to communicate.