The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

Issues and Future Prospects for Japan-China Relations

April 7, 2011

Fragility and Resilience

Since the Democratic Party of Japan came to power in the summer of 2009, the main thrust of the government's China policy has been to build a relationship based on the keynotes of partnership and cooperation. Essentially, this practice of seeking to cooperate with China represents a continuation of the path followed by successive Japanese governments since the policy was adopted by the cabinet of Shinzo Abe in 2006. The present government also inherited the goal of constructing a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" that was agreed upon between the preceding Liberal Democratic Party government and the Hu Jintao administration of the People's Republic of China. To that extent, it is fair to say that there is little that is particularly noteworthy in the DPJ's China policy.

One aspect that does deserve attention, however, is the closely intertwined relationship between this policy and the government's stance toward the United States. In the background to this is the 2008 global financial crisis that had its roots in the United States, and the fact that China put itself back on the road to growth faster than any other country in the aftermath of the crisis, thanks to its effective financial stimulus package. This happened in a climate in which it was widely recognized that a change was taking place in the balance of power between the United States and China and prompted widespread speculation that Japan was beginning to move the weighting of its foreign policy from a pro-US to a pro-China stance. In this article, I will examine the structure of current Japan-China relations from a variety of perspectives, before considering some of the issues that need to be overcome in the bilateral relationship.

A Mutually Beneficial Relationship

Japan and China agreed to work together to construct a "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" during the visit to China of Shinzo Abe in October 2006, shortly after he became prime minister. In the months and years prior to this, during the later stages of Jun'ichiro Koizumi's time in office, the prime minister's annual visits to Yasukuni Shrine had provoked a strong reaction from the Chinese side, and relations between the two countries had deteriorated so badly as to cause summit meetings to be cancelled. Japan-China relations had reached their lowest ebb since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972. At one go, Abe's visit lifted the relationship to a higher level. It became clear as a result of this process that fragility and resilience exist alongside each other in Japan-China relations.

Japanese administrations, including those led by Koizumi, have repeatedly acknowledged its past wars of aggression and invasion and have expressed remorse and apology. In spite of this, historical issues have remained a thorn in the side of bilateral relations, and they retain the potential to cause deep pain and strong feelings on both sides unless sufficient care is taken. When Abe announced that he would make no public statement on whether he would or would not attend services at Yasukuni, the Chinese side interpreted his words to mean that he would not visit the shrine and accepted his visit.

Premier Wen Jiabao made the following remarks when he spoke before the Diet during a visit to Japan in April 2007: "Since the normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan, the Japanese government and leaders have on many occasions stated their position on historical issues, admitting that Japan committed aggression and expressing deep remorse and apology to the victimized countries. The Chinese government and people positively appreciate the position they have taken." These remarks defined a new era in bilateral relations, manifesting that China was ready to accept Japan's apologies. The speech represented the major progress that had been made toward bringing about reconciliation between the two peoples on historical issues. With a view to separating historical issues from contemporary politics and diplomacy, the Japan-China Joint History Research Committee involving Chinese and Japanese scholars was launched.

Once history ceased to be a hot-button political issue, however, the Chinese authorities became less than enthusiastic about publishing the results of this historical research for fear of arousing nationalist sentiments among the masses.

Publication of the final report was significantly delayed following Chinese demands, on top of which it was decided not to publish essays on the postwar period at all. At the time of writing, it is possible to download the essays from the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs webpage, but the Chinese equivalent not only fails to make the research available for downloading but barely mentions the project or its results at all.

Another area where the fragility of the relationship is prominent is national security. In November 2004, when Koizumi was prime minister, there was an incident when a Chinese nuclear submarine trespassed into Japanese waters. When the United States and Japan released a joint statement at the Two Plus Two Security Consultative Committee in February 2005 declaring that one of their strategic objectives was to encourage a peaceful solution through dialogue of problems relating to the Taiwan Strait, China reacted forcefully, interpreting the statement as indicative of an intention to intervene militarily in the Taiwan issue. Japan and China also failed to reconcile their differences on the extent of each country's exclusive economic zones, and there were repeated tensions involving marine research vessels.

Given the complexity of the issues, the visit of President Hu Jintao to Japan in May 2008, during Yasuo Fukuda's time as prime minister, and agreements reached the following month on joint development research in the East China Sea and approval for Japanese corporate investment in Chinese-held gas fields were epoch-making achievements. But bilateral research along the so-called median line of the overlapping 200 nautical mile zones of control attracted domestic criticism within China as an overly generous concession, and China put off entering into concrete negotiations. In 2006 China's State Oceanic Administration decided on a system of scheduled patrols to protect its marine interests in the East China Sea, and in December 2008 China dispatched two patrol vessels to Japanese waters in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands.

The most significant factor in terms of resilience in the Japan-China relationship, on the other hand, has been the expansion and strengthening of economic exchanges. Former Prime Minister Koizumi said repeatedly that the rise of China was not a threat but an opportunity for Japan, calling for the formation of an East Asian community and highly evaluating China's active moves toward regional integration. Since China joined the World Trade Organization in December 2001, there has been a procurement boom for Japanese companies doing business with China. As a result, a majority of players in Japanese financial circles have come to favor a free trade agreement between Japan, China, and the Republic of Korea. From the Chinese perspective, China sets high store on Japan's energy-efficient technology and environmentally friendly technology, with a view to realizing the harmonious society based on scientific development called for by Hu Jintao.

Cultural and social ties are also growing closer. The number of Chinese studying in Japan increases every year, reaching 79,082 in May 2009, some 60% of the total figure. Tourist numbers are also increasing. In 2008 Chinese tourists represented more than 1 million of a total of 8.35 million foreign tourists. Despite the swine flu panic, the number of Chinese tourists visiting Hokkaido doubled in fiscal 2009, when the island was featured in a popular hit movie.

Even under the Koizumi administration, there was a steady increase in the number of Japanese studying Chinese as a second foreign language in university and the number of Japanese nongovernmental organizations engaged in tree-planting in China. The image of Japan in Chinese society has started to improve. One factor in this was the behavior of a Japanese rescue team in the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake in May 2008, who formed an orderly line and bowed to show respect to victims as their bodies were dug up from the wreckage. A photograph of this moment was distributed over the Internet and moved many people who saw it. In addition to the remarkable popularity of Japanese anime, the practice of cosplay is also growing, incorporating group acting and other elements, with numerous contests being held in China every year.

Hatoyama's China Policy

The LDP was defeated in the September 2009 general election, and the DPJ came to power. Immediately after taking office, Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama visited New York for a UN conference, where his first summit meeting was with Chinese President Hu Jintao. At this meeting, the prime minister expressed his hopes of enriching the content of the strategic and mutually beneficial relationship between the two countries and proposed that Japan and China should cooperate to build an East Asian community.

The initiative to construct an East Asian community was central to the Asia policy of the Hatoyama administration. One thing that differentiated Hatoyama's policy from those of preceding LDP governments was the emphasis Hatoyama placed on the concept of yu-ai , or fraternity, as the fundamental principle on which a future community might be built.

According to Hatoyama, yu-ai was a way of thinking that "respects one's freedom and individual dignity while also respecting the freedom and individual dignity of others." It might be described also as an approach based on independence and coexistence. The idea originated in the ideals of Austrian nobleman Richard Nikolaus von Coudenhove-Kalergi, one of the first to call for a Pan-European movement, who wrote that "Freedom without fraternity leads to anarchy" and "Equality without fraternity leads to tyranny." In this respect, the philosophy differed from that espoused by LDP governments under Shinzo Abe and Taro Aso, who chose to stress "freedom and democracy."

In terms of a methodology for working toward a community, based on the principle of open regional cooperation, Hatoyama called for a multilayered functional framework for cooperation across diverse areas, including trade, investment, finance, environmental protection, disaster prevention, infectious disease countermeasures, piracy and disasters at sea, nuclear arms reductions, cultural exchange, social security, and urban problems. In terms of methodology, in other words, the policy was little different from that of previous LDP-led governments. However, there has certainly been substantial progress made on cooperative relations in Northeast Asia, including the beginning of joint research on a Japan-China-South Korea Free Trade Agreement in May 2010 and the announcement of the comprehensive Trilateral Cooperation Vision 2020 at the Japan-China-South Korea leaders' summit in Jeju.

At the trilateral summit in Beijing in October 2009, Hatoyama said that Japan had been too dependent on the United States in the past and that although Japan would continue to regard Japan-US relations as the most important, it would put greater emphasis on Asia in its policies in the future. When the DPJ's then Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa visited China with 143 of the party's Diet members in December that year, Hu Jintao responded to a request from Ozawa by shaking hands and being photographed with the representatives one by one. When Vice-President Xi Jinping visited Japan immediately after this, the Japanese government went to considerable lengths to arrange a meeting with the Emperor despite the short notice. This conduct prompted speculation in some quarters that the position of Japan in relation to the United States and China was shifting as a result of the ongoing disputes over possible relocation of the US Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

Despite the overall pro-China stance it has taken, the DPJ government has also made demands of China. In December 2009 Hatoyama co-chaired the Bali Democracy Forum with President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia and expressed his hopes for continuing progress on democracy and human rights issues in Asia. At a meeting with Chinese Defense Minister Liang Guanglie during his visit, Ozawa expressed concern about China's modernization and strengthening of its armed forces. Then in December 2009 Japanese Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada expressed regret over the deportation of 20 ethnic Uighurs from Cambodia to China, and protested strongly in May 2010 against the obstruction of a Japanese survey ship and near approaches by Chinese carrier-borne helicopters to Japanese Self-Defense Forces ships. He was also reported to have provoked heated debate by insisting to Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi that China reduce its stockpile of nuclear weapons, or at least not add to it any further.

For a while after the DPJ government took office, the Chinese watched developments warily. But in December 2009 they evidently decided that an opportunity had come to develop their relations with Japan, and they began to demonstrate a more actively engaged attitude toward regional cooperation in which Japan and China would collaborate together. There were likely multiple reasons for this decision to strengthen cooperation with Japan. First, China must have realized that the new DPJ administration, which would probably continue in power for the next four years, was making a pro-China stance one of the fundamental planks of its foreign policy. The tug-of-war with Koizumi during his time as prime minister had been traumatic for China, and the confirmation that the new leaders would not visit Yasukuni Shrine provided a foundation for trust in the DPJ leadership.

Within China, meanwhile, a new diplomatic direction was unveiled at a congress of envoys posted overseas (ambassadors' meeting) held in Beijing after an interval of five years in July 2009. The main points of this new policy were as follows: China's strategic objectives should be to become more influential politically, more competitive economically, better positioned to project a positive image that would make people around the world feel favorably toward China, and more influential in terms of morality. The conference acknowledged brighter prospects for multipolarity in global affairs, following the global financial crisis and the rise of the newly emerging economies. Diplomats were encouraged to bear in mind that a moment of opportunity had arrived. Their instructions were to put together a comprehensive strategy on great power diplomacy; on diplomacy with the neighbors, it was necessary to push ahead to complete the work of building and strengthening a geopolitical strategic foothold. Developing good relations with Japan should constitute an extremely important condition for carrying out this assertive new diplomatic policy and having stable relations with countries around the world.

In March 2010 the Chinese authorities announced that they had arrested the man responsible for the "poisoned dumplings" incident. During a visit to Japan at the end of May that year, Premier Wen Jiabao said that he wished to move ahead with the agreement reached in 2008 on developing resources in the East China Sea. Following this, the two countries began negotiations on concluding an international treaty.

Coinciding with its more positive diplomatic efforts, however, China's increasing military self-assertion has brought tensions with several countries, including Japan. Since the beginning of 2009, China has been playing an active role in multinational anti-piracy efforts off the coast of Somalia. This in itself is not a problem. But it has been reported that China, which sets considerable store on securing the safety of sea lanes to the Middle East, informed the United States in March 2010 that the South China Sea was also a part of its core interests. In the South China Sea, in addition to an incident in March the previous year in which Chinese ships, including a naval vessel, obstructed the activities of a US naval ocean surveillance ship, there have been frequent incidents in which China has seized or obstructed the activities of fishing boats from Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and other countries recently. As regards Japan, there have been Chinese obstructions of the activities of Japanese survey ships in the East China Sea and the seas west of Okinotorishima Island, as well as the dangerously close approaches by Chinese naval helicopters to Self-Defense Forces ships as mentioned above.

Therefore, although economic and cultural integration continues apace, and although Japan is right to stress the growing need to give greater importance to Asia, at the same time the nature of the strategic environment in which Japan finds itself has not changed, and indeed the risk factors are becoming more pronounced. As a result, there is an urgent need for Japan and other East Asian countries to bolster their relations with China and the United States at the same time.

A Long-Term National Strategy

From the background sketched above and the present situation, it is apparent that Japan-China relations face a moment of both opportunity and challenge. In July 2010 the DPJ government passed substantial relaxations of visa requirements for individual tourists from China. The aim was to increase the number of tourists from China from just over 1 million in 2009 to 3.9 million by 2013 and to 6 million by 2016.

Japan's current ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, with his private-sector background, has said that signing a free trade agreement with China and working to expand cultural exchange are major ambitions for his time in office. In fact, although the Chinese people's image of Japan is beginning to improve, the Japanese image of China remains badly damaged by the "poisoned dumplings" incident. It is to be hoped that China will strengthen its efforts to carry out public diplomacy aimed at Japan.

In addition, intellectual property protection remains a serious issue, but it is likely that the Chinese government will put greater energy and effort into measures to deal with this issue as the number of Chinese companies falling victim to the problem increases. We can also expect steady progress on joint responses to nontraditional threats within a bilateral or multilateral framework. By accelerating the positive side of globalization and restricting the negative aspects, there are good prospects for strengthening the resilience of the Japan-China relationship.

At the same time, it is clear that dealing with weaknesses in the relationship remains a major challenge. Although the impact of historical issues on Japan-China relations is not as great as it used to be, this is because there have not been any major incidents recently, such as prime ministerial visits to Yasukuni Shrine. Japan cannot afford to forget the fundamental fact that history remains a sensitive subject for many Chinese people. At the same time, it is important to communicate to as many people as possible the joint efforts that China and Japan are making together to overcome the past and bring about a reconciliation. Examples of this include the tree-planting activities being carried out by a Japanese NGO in former battlegrounds that saw fierce fighting during the Sino-Japanese War and the disposal of abandoned chemical weapons, which has finally entered the stage of earnest implementation after numerous problems and difficulties.

Chinese strategy calls for "three types of warfare" that will help it to achieve its objectives without military clashes: media warfare, psychological warfare, and legal warfare. Over the past year or so, however, a number of Chinese military figures and military analysts have made extremely aggressive statements in the Chinese media. Numerous rash pronouncements have been widely dispersed over the Internet, such as "We should aim to match the strength of the enemy's fleet in the Northwest Pacific and work to wrest control of the seas," and "It is unrealistic to rely simply on diplomacy and economic means to solve issues in the South China Sea; unless this is backed up by massive military strength, we risk losing not only national territory but also the rights of the Chinese people to exist." Some have described sea lanes as a "lifeline" for China and have called for China to take control of the Indian Ocean. Although some people apologetically claim that such remarks represent a considerable improvement in freedom of expression in China, nevertheless in the interests of both Japan and China it would be better to point out plainly that rash statements of this kind inevitably cast doubt on the trustworthiness of Chinese leaders, who insist they have no interest in seeking hegemony.

How should other countries respond to an aggressive China? In July 2010 the Association of Southeast Asian Nations foreign ministers released a joint communiqué welcoming the participation of Russia and the United States in the East Asia Summit. Immediately after this, leaders at the ASEAN Regional Forum made thinly veiled criticisms of China's conduct in the South China Sea. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi was reportedly enraged by the idea that Japan, the United States, and ASEAN had "ganged up" to criticize China. But for neighboring countries, demanding that China respect international standards through a multinational framework is both necessary and effective.

Within China itself, some opinion leaders believe that China should devote its energies to solving the serious problems that exist within the country at the same time as pushing ahead with international cooperation. We should consider supporting these reasonable voices, unaffected by the rising tide of Chinese nationalism. Isolation is not what China wants. If Japan continues to carry the flag for independence, equality, and coexistence as the structural ideals of a future East Asian community, the number of Chinese people sharing and agreeing with these ideals will surely increase. At the same time, although it is reasonable for Japan to somewhat strengthen its deterrence, the crucial thing is to avoid falling into an arms race, using security dialogue and defense exchanges to promote confidence building with China. No one can prevent China's expanding military might. It is perhaps unavoidable that friction will increase in the short term. But in the medium term, it should be a shared joint objective to establish an order that will allow all those involved to coexist and cooperate in safety and security.

An effective first step toward this would be to make a start on the three-way talks involving Japan, China, and the United States that were scheduled for July 2009 but postponed owing to impenetrable Chinese demands. All three countries are well aware of the shared benefits they stand to gain by cooperation, and their readiness to engage in conflict management is not in doubt. The only thing standing in the way of such a reasonable response is nationalist sentiment. The time has come for Japan to impart to China the lessons it has learned from its own history—that concepts such as "core interests" and "marine lifelines" are better left alone. But whatever the message Japan wishes to convey, an improvement of Japan's soft power will be necessary in order to ensure that China listens to what Japan has to say. It is to be hoped that the DPJ government will put a long-term national strategy in place for bringing this about.

Translated from "Nitchu kankei no kadai to tenbo," Gaiko , September 2010, pp. 6875.

    • 高原 明生/Akio Takahara }
    • Akio Takahara
    • Akio Takahara
    Areas of Expertise
    Contemporary Chinese politics

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