The Japanese destroyer Kirisame will arrive in China's southern port of Zhanjiang on Dec 19, marking the second visit to China undertaken by a JMSDF vessel.

The Japanese destroyer Kirisame will arrive in China's southern port of Zhanjiang on Dec 19, marking the second visit to China undertaken by a JMSDF vessel. (Source: china.org.cn)

The Japanese destroyer Kirisame will begin a five-day visit to the northern Chinese port of Qingdao on 19 December. The activities to be undertaken by the 240-member crew will include sports and a communications exercise with their Chinese counterparts. This coincides with Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s visit to China on Christmas Day.

This marks the second time a Japanese warship has visited China. The Maritime Self-Defence Force destroyer Sazanami arrived in the southern port of Zhanjiang in June 2008, becoming the first Japanese naval vessel to visit China since the Second World War. This was preceded by the historic port call to Tokyo made by the People’s Liberation Army Navy’s destroyer Shenzhen, making it the first warship from the People’s Republic of China to visit Japan.

Building on these historic ship visits in 2007/8, both sides took baby steps towards confidence building. Back in 2009, Chinese Defence Minister General Liang Guanglie visited Japan. He also hosted and spoke to a visiting Japanese delegation regarding improving military exchanges. In 2010 both countries agreed to establish several lines of communication, including a hotline and increased bilateral visits.

Relations between the two countries have also thawed as a result of bilateral disaster assistance. Japan sent a rescue team and supplies to China immediately after the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake. In return, Beijing was willing to assist Japan following the 2011 Tohoku Earthquake, offering to send the Peace Ark hospital ship and eventually deploying a coastguard cutter.

However, good will appears to have been eclipsed by tensions. From China’s perspective, Japan has continued to support the United States and has built closer relations with India and other regional partners (including Australia), leading to a greater sense of containment. Next week’s trilateral talks between Washington, New Delhi and Tokyo might aggravate Beijing’s suspicions.

From Japan’s perspective, China’s military modernisation has been uncomfortable. PLAN naval task forces have made regular transits through the Miyako Strait to undertake exercises in the Western Pacific. Moreover, the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are a source of conflict. The arrest of a Chinese fishing boat skipper by the Japanese Coastguard in September 2010 caused an upsurge of public anger in China and a heated exchange between Beijing and Tokyo. In fact, the announcement of the JMSDF’s latest port call comes at a time when China is sending two maritime surveillance ships to perform the latest round of patrols around disputed waters.

Any suggestion that the visit of PM Noda and the Kirisame will pave a new chapter in Sino-Japanese relations would be extremely optimistic. The good will cultivated from these exchanges is likely to be short-lived. In an ideal world it would be desirable to see the actual establishment and utilisation of the proposed hotline. Even more preferable would be the acceptance of some sort of code of conduct by the navies and coastguards of both countries. But without these concrete and permanent mechanisms in place, Sino-Japanese relations shall remain unstable and vulnerable to competitive mindsets.

Nonetheless, a ship visit represents an extremely important confidence building activity. In the context of growing friction and suspicion the latest port call should help abate some uncertainties. It is a significant demonstration of the willingness and ability of both sides to keep lines of communication open. It offers a brief but valuable opportunity for cool heads in Tokyo and Beijing to prevail in the short-term foreign policy making process. The planned joint communications drill between the crew of the Kirisame and their Chinese counterparts will also cultivate greater mutual understanding. If successful, this sort of activity could serve as a model for future PLAN-JMSDF exercises at sea to hone communications and conflict prevention.

In short, this is a step in the right direction. Unfortunately, if this is the only form of confidence building that Beijing is willing to go ahead with, then it is hardly a sustainable approach to long-term Sino-Japanese relations. What can members of the Asia-Pacific community do?

By continuing to addresss the need for concrete confidence building measures in Beijing’s relationship with Tokyo, either through Track II diplomacy, bilateral dialogue or multilateral channels like the ASEAN Regional Forum, it would convey the message that open communications, transparency, cooperative exercises and frequent exchanges, going beyond ad hoc ship visits, is both a regional expectation and good practice.

But it is important to acknowledge Beijing’s past and current attempts in order to encourage the rising power to rekindle its commitment to developing concrete confidence building measures with Tokyo. Governments in the region should applaud Beijing for taking the important step of inviting a JMSDF ship to visit for a second time.  A positive regional response to this gesture may embolden academics, analysts and policy makers in China to trigger debate on the utility of good will visits and other confidence building measures in shaping Beijing’s approach to Tokyo.

It may also pay to acknowledge Beijing’s efforts in the South China Sea. It is natural for most observers to scrutinise China as a belligerent. But despite aggressive actions and assertive claims, it is not always a zero-sum game. While there is much work to be done, the 2002 Declaration of Conduct in the South China Sea agreed to between China and ASEAN has served as a crucial “good will” platform for facilitating dialogue and joint activities (including several Sino-Vietnamese joint naval patrols and discussion between China and the Philippines on joint development). Beijing should be encouraged to replicate such a declaration/draft code of conduct with its regional neighbours in the north.

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Wilson's publication, "Examining China's Participation in Bilateral and Multilateral Military Exercises", Security Challenges Journal 7, no. 3 (2011), won first prize in the Australia Defence Business Review's 2011 Young Strategic Writers' Competition (article is available for download at www.securitychallenges.org.au). Wilson completed a conjoint degree in LLB (Hons) and BA (Hons) at the University of Auckland. He was a summer research scholar at the Australian National University's Centre for Strategic and Defence Studies and interned with the Lowy Institute of International Policy. His area of expertise includes the South China Sea, China-India relations, and China's military modernisation.
Wilson Chau has 11 post(s) on Asia Security Watch