Relations between China and Japan, never particularly placid, have reached bona fide crisis proportions over the past several months—and could get worse.

The trouble began earlier this year, when Tokyo’s governor announced his intention to purchase the uninhabited and fiercely disputed Senkaku Islands (which the Chinese call the Diaoyu) from their private owner. This swiftly became Japanese national policy. And because in East Asia an uninhabited island is never just an uninhabited island, China had a national temper tantrum.

Riots broke out in dozens of Chinese cities, with tacit government approval. Scores of Japanese-owned businesses, factories, and cars were torched. A Japanese consulate was attacked. Protesters marched with banners calling for genocide, and businesses posted signs declaring, “No Japanese Allowed!” An editorial in the People’s Daily, the Chinese Communist party’s newspaper of record, lauded the rioters’ “patriotism.”

Economic damage was inflicted as well. Sales of Japanese cars in China (the world’s largest auto market and, it often seems, the world’s largest traffic jam) have tanked. “Toyota’s China sales plunged 49 percent last month compared to September 2011. Honda was off 41 percent and Nissan was down 35 percent,” reports Bloomberg Businessweek. Mazda and Mitsubishi sales also plummeted, with 35 percent and 65 percent declines, respectively. Air China, China Eastern Airlines, Japan Airlines, and All Nippon Airways have significantly reduced their flights between the two countries. And China’s finance minister and central bank chief snubbed a series of IMF meetings in Tokyo last week—though the gesture was wholly symbolic.

So, Sino-Japanese relations are approaching something of a postwar nadir. And there are reasons to believe the situation will only deteriorate further next year.

First, Japan must hold a general election by September, though it will likely happen much earlier. The main parties’ standard-bearers are scrambling furiously to out-hawk one another. The country’s woefully unpopular prime minister, Yoshihiko Noda, made waves by purchasing the Senkakus, and by pointedly vowing to accept “no compromises” with China. While these moves have won broad approval, his party will likely lose its majority in the Diet for a number of other reasons, including its economic performance.

A new party will contest the election. Founded and led by the boisterous Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto, the Japan Restoration party is also making hawkish noises. Hashimoto, whom the New York Times describes as a “boyish-faced 43-year-old former television commentator” with an “in-your-face style,” is basically a Japanese Tea Partier. (A green tea partier?) He’s taken on Osaka’s public-sector unions, slashed deficits, and imposed performance standards on teachers. On foreign policy, he advocates an aggressive response to territorial disputes, and wants a national referendum on revising Article 9 of Japan’s postwar constitution, which mandates pacifism. (Judging by recent polling, a major overhaul of Article 9 would stand a good chance of passing.)

But most important was September’s selection of former prime minister Shinzo Abe to lead Japan’s largest opposition party, the Liberal Democrats. (Their name is something of a misnomer—the Liberal Democrats aren’t.) During his last premiership, from 2006 to 2007, Abe pursued an activist foreign policy. He warned of China’s military buildup. He imposed tough sanctions on North Korea. He floated a plan to revise—or even do away with—Article 9.

Much of Abe’s foreign policy record was (and is) tough, smart, and conservative. But Abe has an unfortunate habit of poking the eyes of Japan’s allies; he’s outraged South Korea by promoting school textbooks that ludicrously deny that Imperial Japan used “comfort women”—i.e., Korean sex slaves—before and during World War II.

Japan-watchers agree that Abe, the candidate likely to take the hardest line on China, is also most likely to win the premiership. Richard J. Samuels, the Ford International Professor of political science at MIT, says, “Abe has to be considered the favorite,” and wonders if Abe will govern as the “nationalist who seems capable of reckless driving in the waters of the East China Sea.” Ellis Krauss, professor of Japanese politics and policymaking at the University of California, San Diego, while averring that he “would take no Las Vegas odds as to what might happen,” nonetheless concedes that right now, “Abe is the favorite.”

China, meanwhile, will soon undergo its own leadership transition. Xi Jinping is set to be installed as president on November 8, replacing Hu Jintao. Hu’s foreign policy has been notably more bellicose than his predecessors’: In addition to its troubles with Japan, China is currently embroiled in territorial disputes with South Korea, India, Vietnam, and (of course) Taiwan.

Not much is known about Xi’s personal policy preferences, but at a September speech at an Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) meeting, he used what the South China Morning Post called a “tougher tone on .  .  . disputes,” saying, “We are firm in safeguarding China’s sovereignty, security, and territorial integrity.” With the Chinese economy indisputably slowing, the new president and his party may find it strategic to inflame anti-Japanese nationalism further in order to deflect internal criticism from China’s ever more restive populace.

Dean Cheng, a research fellow at the Heritage Foundation’s Asian Studies Center, says it is likely that China’s current foreign policy assertiveness

is not simply leadership posturing, but a combination of leadership weakness (it has no real direction in foreign policy); national arrogance (it’s weathering the global economic downturn, enjoys rising comprehensive national power, has eclipsed Japan economically, etc.); and rising nationalism on the part of the populace. If this is correct, then the Chinese will continue to push their neighbors. Coupled with growing military capabilities, the Chinese may see themselves as ascendant in the region, and therefore conclude that they have little need to negotiate with smaller states, but will expect deference from them.

Dan Blumenthal, a resident fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, predicts, “There will be a short period of caution as the new Chinese leadership finds its footing. But then they will need to do something in the East and South China Sea to show that they are not breaking from Hu Jintao’s guidance and to consolidate support from the [Chinese military].”

Still, there are some who remain stubbornly optimistic that China’s new president will forge a fresh, less combative course. Douglas H. Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, for example, said that with the leadership changes, he hopes “there will be some adjustments and improvements, because there have been some rough patches in recent years.” Henry Kissinger went further in a panel discussion last week at the Woodrow Wilson Center, saying, “I do not believe that great foreign adventures .  .  . can be on their agenda.”

Then again, I happened to be in Beijing during the last leadership transition, when Hu Jintao became president. All the talk at that time had Hu going to lead a great liberalization of Chinese politics, loosening restrictions on the press and possibly even paving the way for democracy. We know how well that worked out.

Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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