Despite sharing resources and sea lines of communication (abbreviated as SLOC) in the ECS, Sino-Japanese relations have been marred in their inability to reconcile their differences over understandings of territories in the East China Sea (ECS) called Diaoyutai in Chinese and Senkaku in Japanese. This has left both China and Japan vulnerable to an accidental clash in the maritime domain associated with miscommunication or a misreading of each other’s intentions.

Some much-needed progress has been made in the realm of maritime affairs. In late 2017, China and Japan reached an agreement for a maritime crisis management framework through the establishment of a communication mechanism to prevent accidental sea and air collisions in the ECS. This has been accomplished through broad intergovernmental dialogue including Chinese officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Central Office for Foreign Affairs, Ministry of National Defense, Ministry of Public Security, Ministry of Transport, Ministry of Agriculture, State Oceanic Administration, National Energy Administration, China Coast Guard and other organizations. Japanese counterparts included those from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Cabinet Office (National Ocean Policy Secretariat), Fisheries Agency, Agency for Natural Resources and Energy, Japan Coast Guard, Ministry of the Environment, and Ministry of Defense.

The representation of different ministries on both sides was significant as each side views maritime issues in the ECS at several levels including security, energy and natural resources (fisheries), transport and the environment. This multi-tiered understanding of maritime issues in the ECS provides opportunities for China and Japan to pursue a multi-speed approach to maritime cooperation. Those areas that are not contentious such as fisheries resource management, environmental protection and contingencies plans for search and rescue operations are areas that can move forward more rapidly as they don’t touch open sovereignty claims and national security. These include strengthening law enforcement cooperation in the field of combating transnational crimes such as smuggling, illegal migration and narcotics trading.

Areas such as maritime law enforcement, while more contentious can also be divided into areas that can move disagreements or infringements into the depoliticized diplomatic spaces for quick resolution and those that are non-negotiable. This bifurcation serves both China and Japan’s interests as it allows both parties to choose to solve issues through quiet diplomacy, out of sight of on-line nationalists in both countries that can turn a minor incident into something much more detrimental to bilateral relations.

The last area of discussion is those that revolve around national defense and sovereignty related issues. While these may be non-negotiable on both sides of the ECS, effective communication can ensure that Sino-Japanese relations at a broad level is not disrupted owing to a ECS incident. Continued deepen economic relations, cooperation on areas of mutual concern such as the environment, resource management and even North Korea should not be derailed by a disruption in one area of their comprehensive relationship.

On April 19th and 20th the Ninth Round Meeting of the Japan-China High-Level Consultation on Maritime Affairs was held. It aims to build on the momentum gathered in the December 2017 agreement. Leaders at the end of the meeting have agreed for their marine transportation departments to restart the China-Japan Shipping Policy Forum within the year as well as deepen their cooperation in the above jointly agreed upon areas.

Importantly, the maritime dialogue comes several days after the Fourth Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue which suffered from an 8-year hiatus stemming from the 2010 arrest of a Chinese fisherman after an intentional collision with Japanese Coast Guard vessels in disputed waters.

Taken as a single bilateral meeting, the Ninth Round Meeting of the Japan-China High-Level Consultation on Maritime Affairs can be understood as a functional cooperation based on shared interests in the ECS. While accurate, it is more insightful to examine the meeting related to maritime affairs in the context of an attempt by China and Japan to return their relationship back to the pre-2010 state often characterized as warm economically but cold politically.

Leaders on both sides are engaging in a process of confidence building to set the stage for Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan for a trilateral summit with South Korea, a visit of PM Abe to Beijing in 2018 and a subsequent reciprocal visit by President Xi Jinping to Tokyo in 2019. This effort to normalize relations through maritime cooperation and reciprocal trilateral and bilateral visits are a recognition by China and Japan that their economic fortunes are difficult to untether. Moreover, while parts of China are very developed, Beijing acknowledges that a better relationship with Japan can help China deal with some of its developmental challenges such as environmental problems.

At the same time, rapprochement has been partly driven by exogenous forces, specifically the Trump Administration’s trade and tariff policies as well as his erratic security strategy. Both countries who are heavily reliant on trade would suffer if a trade war was to proceed. Normalization of meetings at the highest level provides both China and Japan to communicate as heads of state about their common concerns as well as it contributes to confidence building in non-security areas.

Both states have made progress in terms of returning to more cordial relations and maritime affairs cooperation is part of that process. Notwithstanding the thawing in Sino-Japanese relations over the past several months both sides need to do more to building trust at the intergovernmental level, military-military level and grassroots level.

On the Japanese side, eschewing visiting to Yasukuni Shrine and rejecting right-wing revisionism at the highest levels of government should go hand-in-hand with transparency on efforts to revise the Constitution. By doing so, Japan could allay some of the security and perception concerns that are at the core of the challenges between the two neighbors.

Like the Japanese, China needs to adjust its behavior in the region to consolidate the existing momentum towards warming relations. On the security front, more communication and transparency on activities in the ESC and SCS as well as quelling anti-Japanese activities in the Mainland would contribute to more confidence in the long-term intentions of China in the region.

These will not be easy in either country. Nonetheless, incremental implementation of the recommendations that occur in concert with dialogue such as the 9th Round Meeting of the Japan-China High-Level Consultation on Maritime Affairs, the 4th Japan-China High-Level Economic Dialogue, and reciprocal visits can contribute to easing the structural challenges in the bilateral relations.

President Xi Jinping and PM Abe are well placed to invest in this process of confidence building. Both have strong patriotic credentials, they have a track record of effective governance, and they have a track record of being reform minded.

(This article was first published in China Plus on the 21st of April, 2018 and is reposted with the expressed permission of Dr. Stephen R. Nagy.)

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