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Inside the China-Japan relationship

| Saturday, Feb. 22, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

At the Munich Security Conference last month, Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Fu Ying said the China-Japan relationship is “at its worst.” But that's not the most colorful statement explaining, and contributing to, China-Japan tensions of late.

At Davos, a member of the Chinese delegation referred to Shinzo Abe and Kim Jong Un as “troublemakers,” lumping the Japanese prime minister together with the volatile young leader of a regime shunned by the international community. Abe, in turn, painted China as militaristic and overly aggressive, explaining how — like Germany and Britain on the cusp of World War I — China and Japan are economically integrated but strategically divorced.

Of course, actions speak louder than words and there's been no shortage of provocative moves on either side. In November, Beijing declared an East Asian Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), which requires all aircraft to follow instructions issued by Chinese authorities, even over contested territory, which pushed tensions to new highs. The following month, Abe visited Yasukuni Shrine, a site associated with Japanese militarism that makes it an automatic lightning rod for anti-Japanese sentiment among Japan's neighbors.

But despite the clashes and growing conflict, it remains exceedingly unlikely that China-Japan fallout will escalate into military engagement. China won't completely undermine economic relations with Japan; at the provincial level, Chinese officials are much more interested in attracting Japanese investment. And Japan still sees the success of its businesses in the vast Chinese market as an essential part of efforts to revive its own domestic economy, even if its companies are actively hedging their bets by shifting investment away from China.

The relationship is unlikely to reach a boiling point. Rather, we are more likely to see sustained cycles of tension.

And although it's in both China's and Japan's interests to stop short of military conflict, both countries have motives for drawing out the tensions. They can benefit back home from the perception of an unyielding stance to a historical enemy.

Beijing continues to use Tokyo as a release valve for nationalistic pressures as it softens foreign policy on other fronts, particularly with U.S. relations, where the charm offensive is motivated, in part, by an effort to drive a wedge between the U.S. and Japan. In Japan, Shinzo Abe views China's rise as a longer-term threat to Japan's standing in the region and he's intent on pushing back.

So what can we expect this year? Rather than military conflict, the overall result will likely be an aggravation of already inflamed public opinion and a deterioration of the business climate in both countries. Abe will push to reinterpret and even rewrite constitutional prohibitions on Japan's right to use force in international disputes and he will likely visit Yasukuni again.

But perhaps more worrisome than the near-term risks is that there is no solution in sight.

Ian Bremmer, a global research professor at New York University, is president of Eurasia Group, a political risk research and consulting firm.

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