2017 is set to be a consequential year for East Asia in general and Japan-China contests in particular. Beijing and Tokyo's growing assertive postures would continue in 2017 and it is likely that the Japan-China contestation in the region would be more direct and scary. Both countries have been extremely uncompromising under the leaderships of Japan's Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, and China's President, Xi Jinping. Both have been incrementally crossing mutual permissible lines and the trend portends further worsening. There are concerns that in 2017, both with further test the policy of ‘offence’.
In the past few months, there have been significant developments, which point in this direction. Chinese coastal guards have significantly increased their patrolling near the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. In 2016, China also submitted over 50 applications to the Sub-Committee on Undersea Feature Names, part of the Monaco-based International Hydrographic Organization, to give Chinese names to underwater topographic features that had Japanese or other non-Chinese names. These applications were double in number than those submitted in 2015. Although 34 Chinese names were rejected, the move shows Beijing’s intent. Over the past six years, China has successfully gotten 76 names approved. It also must be underlined that in 2013, China unilaterally declared the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea and there are allegations that it has gradually been becoming stricter in its implementation.
Japan also keenly observes China's behaviour pertaining to the South China Sea, the Indian Ocean, the One-Belt One-Road (OBOR) project, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and its fierce opposition of the installations of the US Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system in the East Asia. On most platforms of bilateral and multilateral exchanges, the Chinese approach has been overtly non-compromising. China has been flexing its muscles at the East Asian Summit, ASEAN, and the ASEAN+3, ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF), among others, which makes Japan concerned.
Similarly, Japan too has been equally uncompromising in its approach. Tokyo increased its military budget again, which is the fifth consecutive increase in a row and its latest defence paper openly mentions islands' security and the East China Sea as the main contexts of the increase. Japan’s procurement of naval ships and submarines are the main focus of the defence expenditure; and this was evidently done bearing China in mind. In early December 2016, two Japanese F-15 fighter jets allegedly interfered in the training of Chinese Air Force in the Western Pacific, which irked Beijing.
Additionally, Japan has a plan to establish an organisation of the Japanese Coast Guard, which would help Southeast Asian countries ‘improve maritime safety’; and this organisation is slated to become operational from April 2017. In a more recent move, Japan added the name Taiwan to its de facto embassy in Taipei on 28 December 2016, which will certainly annoy China. Actually, China may read Japanese overtures to Taiwan as part of Tokyo and Washington's joint plan because the US President-elect, Donald Trump, has also shown a glimpse of his intent to review the status quo of the US' ‘One China Policy’. Trump received a phone call from the Taiwan's President, Tsai Ing-wen, and justified his conversation strongly. China would consider it a Tokyo-Washington joint plan to alter Taiwan's status in their diplomacy.
On 29 December 2016, Japan's Defense Minister Tomomi Inada visited Yasukuni shrine to again emphasise Japan's intent of non-compromise. Furthermore, in early January 2017, the defense minister had visited the NATO headquarters to deepen NATO-Japan defence cooperation and along with the Japan's Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, participated in the two-plus-two talks with France on security issues in the East China Sea and the region. Japan has also been trying to placate Russia's President, Vladimir Putin; and during his visit to Japan in mid-December 2016, Tokyo assured many economic concessions to Moscow. Observers connect Japan's extra efforts to improve relations with Russia with the Japanese efforts to isolate China in regional politics.
Although, there are uncertainties over the Trump's approach towards Japan, Abe’s special meeting with the US president-elect in December 2016 indicates that the US commitment to Japanese security would continue. It is also because even though Trump has some reservations regarding Japan’s ‘free-ride’, he is overtly challenging China and for that, he needs Japan’s support.
Overall, the contestation between Japan and China is intensifying, and if neither party carries out a course correction in 2017, it may reach a critical point. Incremental quantitative changes are likely to bring qualitative transformation in the Japan-China bilateral this year. The course may be otherwise, if the following three variables intervene in the process: huge economic exchanges between the two countries; a decrease in Washington’s support to an aggressive Japan; and constructive intervention of concerned middle powers of the Asia-Pacific.