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Why Is the Abe Government so Anxious to Improve Relations with China?

Viewed 1694 times 2015-3-4 23:27 |System category:Others| China, Japan, Abe

Editor’s Note: Sino-Japanese relations have been tense in recent years. In particular, since Abe came to power, Japan has not only been “desperately struggling”with China on territorial and historical issues, but has also tried to set up an“encircling network”against China. Thus Sino-Japanese relations have emerged as the most risky bilateral relations in the Asia-Pacific region. As the two largest powers in East Asia, and the world’s second and third largest economies, the continuing confrontation between China and Japan will have huge negative repercussions on regional and global peace. With the approaching of the APEC meeting, however, the Abe government has repeatedly expressed its hopes for diplomatic dialogue with China. The Abe government’s shift in attitude towards China from“hard”to a new“moderate”position has attracted wide international attention. We cannot help but ask: What has prompted the Abe government to be so eager as to hold a China-Japan summit meeting? Does Abe really want to improve relations with China? What is the prospect for Sino-Japanese relations in the future? This journal invited some well-known Japan experts to analyze and discuss these sensitive questions. What follows are the main viewpoints expressed.


Why Is Shinzo Abe so Eager to Improve Relations with China?

Huang Dahui

(Huang Dahui is Professor and Director of the Center for East Asian Studies at the School of International Relations, Renmin University of China.)

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has maintained a tough stance on China since he took office. Not only has his administration antagonized China over sensitive issues such as territorial disputes but it has also launched a public opinion war, exaggerating the China threat to the international community. Abe’s government has also been trying to encircle China in its periphery. Meanwhile, Abe has said repeatedly he wants China and Japan to talk. Over the past few months, Tokyo expressed its strong wish for a dialogue with Beijing at this year’s APEC summit, which was held in the Chinese capital; even launching a series of offensives to push for talks. Temporarily, it looks like Japan has softened its tough stance somewhat. The international community has been amused by this change. The question on everyone’s lips now is: What is making Abe so keen to have a meeting with the Chinese president and improve Sino-Japanese relations?


It is no secret that the Asia-Pacific region is the focus of Japanese diplomacy, which means that Tokyo must carefully handle its relations with the U.S., China, South Korea and Russia. These relationships lie at the heart of Japan’s foreign policy. However, Abe also has his own global diplomacy, which sets its sights farther than regional countries such as China. He has two goals for his global diplomacy. One is to keep China in check. The other is to reverse Japan’s decline, and bring the nation back onto the world stage. However, his actions have backfired, because not only has he not succeeded in keeping China in check, he has also sparked worries globally that Japan is becoming too right wing. While Abe has not been able to meet with the leaders of China and South Korea, in contrast Beijing and Seoul have been growing closer with frequent diplomatic visits, thus the Japanese public has started criticizing Abe’s foreign policy. There are worries among some of the more broad-minded people in Japan that South Korea will grow even closer to China if Japan does not take action. They are worried about being ostracized by the China-South Korea partnership. Because the U.S. and South Korea have also improved their ties under the leadership of South Korea’s Park Geun-Hye, Japan is especially worried that the former trio of the U.S., China and Japan will be replaced by the U.S., China and South Korea, thus marginalizing and isolating Japan.


Japan is also struggling with how to break the deadlock in its relations with North Korea, especially in terms of how to solve the issue of the Japanese nationals who were kidnapped by Pyongyang. Driven by domestic public pressure, Abe has lifted some of the sanctions against North Korea, bypassing both Beijing and Seoul. Both the U.S. and South Korea expressed their concerns over Japan’s unilateral moves. These two countries believe that the nuclear issue is the key problem, and Japan’s actions have damaged trilateral cooperation between the U.S., South Korea and Japan. And so Japan has found itself in a dilemma. After the Ukraine crisis, Russia accelerated efforts to focus eastwards. Abe’s administration took this as a signal that this would be turning point in Russian-Japanese relations and warmed to Moscow. Abe was even hopeful that the two could talk about their territorial disputes and that a peace treaty could finally be signed. However, under pressure from the U.S., Japan was forced to listen to Europe and the U.S. and impose sanctions on Russia over Moscow’ s alleged involvement in the Ukraine crisis. This has spoiled Abe’s chances to cozy up to Moscow. In contrast, China-Russia ties are growing much
closer, which much surely worry Abe.


Meanwhile, the U.S. has been pressuring Japan to improve its relations with China. Japan is the U.S.’main ally and strategic partner in the Asia-Pacific region, and the U.S. certainly wants Japan to play a key role in its Asia Pacific rebalance. Even so, it is not in U.S. interests to see relations between Japan and China, and Japan and South Korea sour because of territorial disputes. Tensions are destabilizing Northeast Asia, disrupting U.S. plans in the region. Washington is also concerned about any moves towards the right in Japanese politics. The U.S. has been annoyed with Abe’s frequent visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, and at one point even said it was disappointed in Japan. Abe’s Yasukuni Shrine visits have hurt U.S.-Japan ties and the two have had uneasy discussions over negotiations on the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). While Abe has repeatedly said he wants to invigorate the U.S.-Japanese alliance, it hasn’t been until recently that he has made any real effort to do so. The U.S. has urged Japan to improve its relations with both China and South Korea and hold meetings with the leaders of both countries at the APEC Summit in Beijing in November.


Abe has also been feeling the pressure at home from those of his supporters who want Japan to recapture its historical glory. Abe’s main support base is derived from Japan’s conservatives. One camp supports the U.S.-Japanese alliance, while another camp want to cut ties with Washington. The struggle between the two camps is affecting Abe’s domestic and foreign policies. To strengthen his leadership, Abe has been leaning towards the right. He has been pleasing those who favor security (pro-U.S.), but dismayed the other camp who hanker after Japan’s historical might. The first camp want Abe to smooth things over with China and South Korea to ensure that U.S.-Japan ties do not suffer.


Once Abe holds talks with the Chinese leader, their two countries’ bilateral ties should improve and he can rid himself of his troublemaker image. He will also relieve some of the pressure from the U.S. on Japan to improve its relations with its neighbors. Abe is well aware that he will not be able to improve his relationship with the U.S. unless he first improves ties with China. The U.S. does not want tensions between Tokyo and Beijing; they want stability in the region. Abe wants to have the initiative in dealing with South Korea, North Korea and Russia. He also wants to improve ties with China so that he can keep China’s relations with South Korea and Russia in check. Better Sino-Japanese relations may also mean that Japan does not always have to be so passive in regional cooperation agreements. For example, it can gain some bargaining power with the U.S. on the TPP. A Sino-Japanese summit meeting may help Tokyo in its bid to become a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Next year, 2015, will be the 70th anniversary of Japan’s defeat in World War II. If Japan can improve its ties with China and South Korea before that anniversary, then it might be able to divert some of the pressure from home and abroad associated with its role in the war. Abe has already talked about not looking back to the past but rather facing the future as a guiding principle for his foreign policy. The UN also turns 70 next year, and Japan hopes that it can use the occasion to convince the UN to make it a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Abe knows that it will be very difficult to become a permanent member without China’s support. In 2020, the Olympic Games will be held in Tokyo, also making it important for Japan to have better relations with its neighbors. Abe believes that a Sino-Japanese summit bodes well for his chances for re-election in the next polls. Good ties with China is Japan’s top diplomatic concern, and Abe will be well rewarded if he handles it well. While Abe is politically ambitious, temporarily he has had to slow down so that he has a good chance at holding on to power in the long term and finally freeing Japan from post-war political institutions.


Abe is also keen to improve Sino-Japanese ties because he desperately needs to make Abenomics (his brand of economics) work. The LDP’s very existence and power base is strongly tied with it. If Abe can reinvigorate the Japanese economy, then he is ensured of his role in the long-term. Otherwise Abe and his party will lose power. Abe has enjoyed high public approval ratings because Abenomics appears to be working. However, it is clear that somewhere down the line structural reform is also needed, and to do this, Japan needs China. Because western economies have been sluggish, and the newly emerging economics and even Abenomics will be challenged, Japan knows good relations with China are crucial for the sake of its own economy.


(Opinions of the writer in this blog don't represent those of China Daily.)




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Contemporary International Relations(ISSN1003-3408), a policy-oriented research journal, was inspired by the need for the international communication in a period of rapid Chinese development.


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  • Evolution of International Order 2014-9-16 09:12

    Thanks for sharing your story here, we have highlighted your blog.

  • Contemporary International Relations 2014-5-13 13:35

    CD Forum is a Blog not a book! This is way too long to put up in a single blog post! I think we welcome the special thoughts of CIR writers when they take the trouble to write them succinctly and specially for this Forum but not the copy and paste of masses of existing material.  Please consider writing special contributions for discussion here.

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