At the beginning of 2014, there is a cause for pessimism at how badly the Japan-China relations are going on several counts, not least an intensified arms race between Japan and China as the East Asian region prepares for the prospect of a protracted rivalry, if not a head-on military clash, between the world's second and third largest economies.
At the end of 2013, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe unveiled his assertive 10-year national security strategy. Clearly with China in mind, the Abe cabinet's new Japanese defense spending guidelines call for a Y24.7 trillion in defense spending over the next five years and a build-up of air and naval forces to counter China, including the procurement of two new advanced Aegis anti-missile destroyers, six submarines, 52 amphibious vehicles, surveillance drones, U.S. fighter planes and 17 Boeing Osprey aircrafts.
The speed of Japan's military expansion, while compared with the rapid growth of China's military capabilities in recent decades, is still somewhat mild - China raised its defense spending by 10.7 percent in 2013, continuing a nearly unbroken run of double-digit increases over the past two decades.
The already tense China-Japan relations then took a turn for worse on Dec. 26, that culminated in Prime Minister Abe's year-end visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the nation's war dead, including some Class A war criminals who were executed after Japan's defeat.
As Wang Xiangwei, editor-in-chief of Hong Kong-based South China Morning Post, pointed out, "There is never a right time for a Japanese prime minister to visit the controversial Yasukuni war shrine because it honors, among 2.5 million Japanese war dead, 14 Class A war criminals from the Second World War? But Shinzo Abe's Boxing Day trip, the first time a sitting prime minister has paid homage to the shrine since 2006, could not have come at a worse time. With Chin's leadership under President Xi Jinping taking a more assertive stance on international issues, Abe's visit is only expected to harden the resolve to get tough on Japan."
Abe's Dec. 26 Yasukuni Shrine visit has set off swift protests from Beijing and Seoul, even Caroline Kennedy, the new American ambassador to Japan, has expressed her disappointment with Mr. Abe's decision. And in October, during their official visit to Japan, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry and Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel paid their respects at a different cemetery for Japan's war dead, in an apparent effort to nudge Mr. Abe away from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine .
Mr. Abe has shown, however, that he is willing to take on big risks to steer the country away from its postwar pacifism, according to Hiroko Tabuchi of New York Times. "Last month," writes Tabuchi, "Mr. Abe ignored blistering criticism from political opponents as well as the news media and steamrollered through Parliament a law that would tighten government control over state secrets and create an American-style National Security Council. He has also increased military spending for the first time in a decade, and loosened self-imposed restrictions on exporting weapons."
And Ms. Tabuchi says that next year, "Mr. Abe could start taking concrete steps to reinterpret, and ultimately revise, Japan's 1947 pacifist Constitution, something he has described as a life goal. In Mr. Abe's mind, the country's economic prowess is a means to an end: to build a more powerful, assertive Japan, complete with a full-fledged military, as well as pride in its World War II-era past."
Japan's relations with China are already at rock-bottom because of the standoff over control of Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea and over a new air defense identification zone announced by China that includes airspace over the disputed islands. "Mr. Abe," says Tetsuya Takahashi of University of Tokyo, "has just poured even more fuel on the fire."
Mr. Abe's inflammatory visit to the Yasukuni Shrine and his assertive national defense policy are pushing events out of control. Japan's territorial disputes with China, as well as two nations' intense arms race and sharp disagreement over the legacy of the war, also make for a dangerous backdrop to Japan's rise. As Japanese and Chinese air and naval forces remain in a tense standoff in the East China Sea, there are increasing worries among Japan-China watchers that any miscalculation or accident may instigate a military conflict between the two East Asian giants.
Dr. Xiaoxiong Yi is the director of Marietta College's China Program.