On April 23, 21 naval vessels from 14 countries including the United States, South Korea, and India were invited to the international fleet review staged by the PLA navy on its 60th Anniversary. The Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force, however, was excluded from the show and had to content itself with watching from the wharves of Qindao Port through the eyes of its Deputy Chief of Staff Admiral Koji Kato. None of the media reports says anything about a North Korean vessel being there, but it’s hard to believe that they would have snubbed their most friendly neighbor.
I can think of two ways to understand this. First, the Chinese authorities fear that a Japanese gesture of amity and tribute—the presence of a Japanese military vessel—at a celebration of the Chinese military would infuriate a significant portion of the Chinese public. They face enough risks to China’s political stability as it is; they don’t need another irritant however minor it may be. The other possibility is that this is a probe, much like the PLA vessels popping up around Japanese waters. The Chinese authorities are pushing their Japanese counterparts to see if and how much they’ll push back. I think the first one is by far the dominant reason, though I’m sure that the second effect is not going unnoticed over there. And hardliners there would enjoy nothing more than to stick it to Japan just for the fun of it. The Chinese authorities are no more a monolith than, say, Japan’s own LDP.
The story is not without its bright side—the Chinese Communist Party may be authoritarian, but it shows that definitely not totalitarian—the constituency matters. But it does give the lie to any speculation that China will be able to pull Japan away from its alliance with the United States as the result of the pull from the Chinese economy. It does nothing to alleviate the Japanese anxiety over the steady but opaque Chinese military buildup, as well as the military incidents that seem to happen every once in a while in Japanese-controlled areas of disputed waters*.
* As the Chinese Navy grow, so will the frequency of those incidents. A goodwill gesture here, a goodwill gesture there would help build the kind of relationship that helps in minimizing the fallout. The Chinese authorities can’t be unaware of that. They just couldn’t afford the political risk.