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How Can Sino-Japan Ties Be Improved?

Popularity 1Viewed 1831 times 2015-3-5 15:47 |System category:Others| Sino-Japan, ties

Zhu Feng

(Zhu Feng is Professor and Executive Director of Collaborative Innovation Center for South China Sea Studies at Nanjing University.)

There have been tensions between China and Japan since September 2012. These have spiraled so that now the relationship is one of the most dangerous and uncertain in the Asia-Pacific region. This enduring conflict between the world’s second and third largest economies will negatively impact the regional and the global economies. In the first half of 2014, Japanese investment into China fell 47% while bilateral trade slipped 5% on a year earlier. Between 2001 and 2006, Junichiro Koizumi, then Japanese Prime Minister, kept up visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, throwing the China-Japan relationship into an unprecedented political crisis. Ties were characterized by being cold politically, but hot economically. After Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe took office on December 26, 2012, he has barely disguised his open contempt for China in public. He has treated China as a security rival and deliberately challenged Beijing. Meanwhile he denies that there is a dispute over the Diaoyu Islands between China and Japan. Escalating tensions in the waters off the Diaoyu Islands has caused the relationship to sink into a security crisis. It is quite possible that this will escalate still further into cold political and cold economic relations.


At the core of these tensions is Abe’s government’s right wing ideology. Improving ties depend on both countries. China cannot simply blame Abe and set unilateral conditions. China may have the moral advantage here but it will not be able to improve ties by simply clinging to this.


There are two ways in which the countries can warm ties. The first is to gradually reinstate political exchanges with the aim of reestablishing high-level political dialogue. This can also be achieved through a multilateral platform, so that both sides can openly voice their opinions about the tough issues in the relationship. Through politics the two can stabilize their ties, and find ways to constructively solve their conflicts. The other option is for China to set conditions for resuming high-level political dialogue, but it can restart dialogue between lower-level bodies to manage the territorial dispute in the East China Sea to prevent an escalation into military conflict. The first option requires political wisdom and courage from both leaders. They are being pushed by their own countries’nationalist sentiment, but by meeting together they can redirect this animosity into cooperation and peace.


To break the impasse, both two options should be pursued. Irrespective of their historical enmity and current disputes, the reality is that China and Japan are neighbors. In this era of globalization, it is not rational to believe that one has the moral high ground and allow disputes and competition to guide foreign policy. Sino-Japan relations has had its many ups and downs from the normalization of ties in 1972 to the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978 and to the China-Japan Joint Statement in 1998. This background can also serve as a reminder that both countries must emerge from the shadow of history and embrace the future. Following the end of the Cold War, the balance of power between the two fundamentally changed. Ties are now strongly influenced by both countries’domestic political landscape and public opinion. And this is the main reason that their relationship has sunk to new lows—changes to the political environment and public opinion and also the new security situation in the region.


We can view the current relationship as both normal and abnormal. As the balance of power between the two countries shifts, this had led tensions to rise. Abe government’s“diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the globe”and“active pacifism”is a natural response to China’s rise. It is clear that Japan is attempting to respond to China’s growing power, but this tends to disrupt Beijing’s policy to pursue a peaceful rise. China, meanwhile, is attempting to deal with Japan’s moves in this area. Some of its responses are unwise. For example, if it only blames tensions on a resurgence in Japanese militarism, if it continues to allow angry anti-Japanese dramas to be shown on TV, thus inciting public hatred against Japan for its war-time atrocities, then this is not beneficial to improving ties. It also needs to start studying the reasons behind changes in Japan’s political landscape and it must start allowing some of the sorrows of history to take a back seat.


Moreover, Japan will continue to be a major threat to China in the long-term if it does not make some major changes. First, Tokyo must listen to the voices at home that support pacifism. It must also stop trying to expand its military in contradiction to its post-war Constitution. It must desist from challenging China, one of Abe’s favorite ways to gain political traction. If Japan does not change, China cannot deal with the country emotionally. If Japan is destined to be our long-term obstacle, then we should plan for long-term strategic competition. China needs a double strategy that is both tough and soft. On the tough side, China must continue to focus on economic development and institutional reform. It must continue to improve its military and pursue the China dream. But China also needs to work in a diplomatic way in the global arena, be prepared to enter into negotiations, actively engage and show sincerity. China can be strong and stick to its principles while at the same time showing willingness to meet and talk. This will not be a compromise; rather it will be a good way to make China’s voice heard on the world stage.


Because this battle will run for the long-term it is important that China adopt this two-pronged approach. The world is watching China and Japan, wondering how Asia’s two most powerful nations will handle their relationship. China should take the moral high ground rather than be swayed by the public’s nationalist sentiment. If China’s leaders show a willingness to meet with Japanese leaders this will not only improve China’s image as a major power but it also show that China is sincere in wanting to have better relations with Tokyo. Abe has repeatedly criticized China to the leaders of other countries, yet he has also requested a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November during the APEC Beijing Summit. Abe’s desire to meet with Xi is only a short-term fix to stabilize the China-Japan relationship and improve his public support rating at home. If China rebuffs Abe, then it looks like Japan is the sincere one and China is not, or that Japan is willing to take the initiative but China is not.


Even though we know that a meeting between Xi and Abe at the APEC Summit will not lead to any significant change in Japan’s policy of confrontation, the fact that China agreed to the meeting will help win the support of both the Japanese public and the international community. China must be soft to counteract Japan’s toughness.


If Abe continues to visit the Yasukuni Shrine after his meeting with Xi, then the world will more clearly see how stubborn, paranoid and irrational the Japanese government is. Asian nations will react with antipathy, and the rest of the world will also be critical. His visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are meant to build momentum for the future from the ghost of Japanese wartime militarism. The world will see that Japan cannot be trusted and China’s goodwill will cause trouble for Abe’s right wing politics both at home and abroad.

(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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