By Yanmei Xie, International Crisis Group’s Senior China Analyst, and Rachel Vandenbrink, graduate student at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy of Tufts University.

China’s unsuccessful invitation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to attend the 70th anniversary celebrations of the country’s Second World War victory over Japan was an example of diplomacy at its most passive-aggressive.

Beijing publicly announced the invitation in July. Subsequent negotiations for Abe to visit either before or after China’s commemorations failed. 

The inability to agree on the visit speaks volumes about a rivalry that both sides seem happy to keep alive for short-term political gain, while managing its intensity to prevent open conflict. The failure to agree on a summit meeting reflects deep and growing currents of mistrust, which are impeding prospects of any genuine reconciliation. 

Abe’s speech commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of Second World War included the requisite key words Beijing had been listening for, including 'aggression' and 'apology'. But the prime minister avoided a direct apology of his own. Japan’s past 'heartfelt apologies' remain, he said, but future generations should not have to keep apologising. The prime minister soon after gave a nod to his right-wing constituency by sending an offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, which memorialises Japan’s war dead, including 14 'Class A' war criminals.

Unsurprisingly, China was not impressed. The foreign ministry accused Japan of 'being evasive' on its past 'militarism and aggression'. The state-run Xinhua news agency said Abe offered a 'diluted' apology.

Not that a more forthright apology from Abe was likely to move the Chinese Communist Party to give up history as a tool to keep Japan down and prop up its own legitimacy. The military parade that anchors China’s commemoration events will serve as a chest-thumping reminder to the public of China’s ascent – under the Party’s leadership – from a country under Japanese occupation to today’s global power. 

But Beijing’s muscle-flexing has had unintended consequences. Arguably, the threat perception created by China, especially since it began to patrol regularly a group of East China Sea islands that both Japan and China claim, but had been solely administered by Japan, has done the most to help Abe advance a more proactive security agenda at home. 

Under a process started by the previous administration and accelerated by Abe, Tokyo has embarked on defence reforms that are historic in the Japanese context, although still modest by other standards. In a country deeply wedded to the principle of non-aggression in international relations, the reforms are controversial, but the perception of an increased threat to the existing order is helping to usher them through.

Japan has reconfigured its defence orientation from deterrence of a Soviet invasion from the north to a 'dynamic defense force' capable of rapid response to threats anywhere in Japan – especially defending or retaking the remote southwestern islands facing China. In 2014, Japan’s defence budget grew by 2.2%, its first rise in over a decade. 

The Abe administration has also loosened a decades-old ban on arms exports, and 'reinterpreted' Japan’s constitution so that the Japanese Self-Defense Force could come to the assistance of allies and friends in conflicts, partially lifting a longstanding, self-imposed prohibition on collective self-defence. Indeed, under the aegis of 'proactive contribution to peace', Abe has presided over the greatest upgrade to US-Japan defence cooperation in decades. His Government has also stepped up cooperation with Southeast Asian countries entangled in maritime disputes with China, helping Vietnam and the Philippines to acquire patrol vessels and professionalise their coast guards. 

In short, Japan is enhancing its capability not only to defend itself, but also to project power and contend for influence in a theatre where China considers itself the natural leader.  Asia’s two most powerful nations are treading farther down a path of strategic rivalry in a region rife with flashpoints.

For now, it appears both sides understand the disastrous consequences of sliding towards open conflict. They have made progress on establishing a maritime crisis management mechanism scheduled for operation by year-end and aimed at preventing military clashes in the East China Sea. Faithfully implemented, this will go a long way towards averting accidents and miscalculation.

But without visible political will for genuine reconciliation, managing this rivalry is only going to become harder. A 2014 Genron-China Daily joint poll showed 93% of Japanese viewed China unfavorably, a staggering increase from 36% in 2006. Among the Chinese public, 87% viewed Japan unfavorably in 2014, up from 57% in 2006. In that same baseline year of 2006, Abe, in his first term as prime minister, agreed with the then Chinese President Hu Jintao to 'build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests'.

A decade later, the current bilateral relationship is moving ever further from that peaceful vision.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user thierry ehrmann.