China Moves to Stabilize Japan Ties Plagued by 'Old and New Issues'

Beijing's top diplomat urged Tokyo to prioritize the benefits of a long-term relationship with China as both countries try to navigate seriously strained ties.

Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese Communist Party's powerful Politburo, cautioned Japan's national security adviser, Takeo Akiba, on sensitive topics beginning with Taiwan, China's Foreign Ministry said in a readout published on Tuesday. In their first such talks lasting more than two hours, Akiba reminded Yang of Beijing's responsibility to help maintain peace, reported Japan's Kyodo News.

"At present, old and new issues are intertwined in China-Japan relations, and difficulties and challenges cannot be ignored," said Yang, who directs the office of the CCP's Central Foreign Affairs Commission.

"The two sides need to keep on the right track, adhere to win-win cooperation, bear in mind the long-term and overall interests, enhance security [and] mutual trust, and make joint efforts to bring a stable, sound and resilient China-Japan relationship into the next 50 years and jointly safeguard regional peace and prosperity," Yang said.

China, Japan Officials Seek Stable Relations
Policymakers and Tokyo and elsewhere are debating the hypothetical role of the Japan Self-Defense Forces if treaty ally the United States chooses to intervene in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. Above, members of the Japan Ground Self-Defense Force disembark from a V-22 Osprey during a live-fire exercise at the East Fuji Maneuver Area on May 28, 2022, in Gotemba, Shizuoka, Japan. Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

Beijing and Tokyo established formal diplomatic ties in 1972, seven years earlier than Beijing and Washington, D.C. China had hoped the premiership of Japan's Fumio Kishida would cool tensions in a year Chinese leader Xi Jinping vies to secure a third term in office.

But Kishida, who describes himself as liberal and "dovish," has further aligned Tokyo's foreign policy priorities with those of its treaty ally the United States, especially in the wake of Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

"It is very important that China plays a responsible role in maintaining international peace and security," Kyodo quoted Akiba as telling Yang. The officials agreed that building "constructive and stable" bilateral ties required the effort of both countries, the report said.

Yang didn't elaborate on the specifics of "new and old issues" in the relationship, but the Chinese readout references the Japan-controlled Senkaku Islands—known as Diaoyu in Beijing—over which China has maintained a decades-long claim.

China's rapid rise to great power status has seen Beijing enforce stronger claims over what it believes is its historical territory. It's also projecting military power into the Western Pacific, exercising more frequently in the seas and skies around Japan.

Japan's Defense Ministry said on Tuesday that its fighter jets scrambled 119 times to intercept mostly Chinese combat aircraft last month. The figures included 81 scrambles in the southwest, a region that stretches along the Nansei Islands to the disputed Senkakus, near Taiwan.

Tokyo also tracked a long-range joint bomber flight by China and Russia on May 24, the day Kishida hosted leaders of the Quad—Japan, India, Australia and the U.S.—in Tokyo, President Joe Biden among them.

In recent years, China's assertiveness and military pressure against Taiwan, a democratically governed island claimed by Beijing, has caused particular alarm in Japan. Kishida joins a list of recent leaders who, along with Western allies, have called for peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait, something Tokyo sees as vital for the safety of its energy and trade routes.

Last year, Japan's defense white paper called for a "sense of crisis" regarding Taiwan. "Stabilizing the situation surrounding Taiwan is important for Japan's security and the stability of the international community," the report said.

A month later, Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party initiated party-level security talks with Taiwan's ruling Democratic Progressive Party for the first time, a move that triggered displeasure in China.

Japan's Sankei Shimbun reported over the weekend that Tokyo plans to staff its de facto embassy in Taipei with an active-duty defense attache for the first time in its history. Nominally tasked with assisting with Japan's intelligence-gathering efforts, the dispatch of a serving, rather than a formal, defense official further raises the stakes for Taiwan's security.

Beijing is yet to respond to the report, which hasn't been confirmed by either party. Speaking hypothetically on Tuesday, Taiwan's Defense Ministry said it welcomes all types of military exchanges that are conducive to keeping the peace.

Former Japanese officials and leaders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, recently welcomed Biden's rare public pledge to defend Taiwan against a Chinese invasion, comments that seemed to break with over 40 years of "strategic ambiguity" about the nature of an American response to an attack.

The White House later sought to walk back the president's remarks by saying the U.S. position remained unchanged, but Abe and others believed Biden's apparent slip-up was intentional, and would ultimately benefit deterrence across the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing, which protested Biden's choice of words, is expected to press the U.S. on the issue when Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meets with China's defense minister, General Wei Fenghe, in Singapore later this week.