The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research


The Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research

The Impact of LDP Politics on Japan-China Relations

January 12, 2016

In a unique research project, Masaya Inoue analyzed the deepening chill between Tokyo and Beijing since the 1990s from the standpoint of factional politics in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Inoue offered a summary of his findings at a recent public seminar held by the Tokyo Foundation.

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The period spanning the late 1970s and the early 1990s was an era of relative stability in Japan-China relations, despite an undercurrent of tension over historical controversies and other issues. Determined to expand economic ties in order to spur growth and development in the aftermath of the Cultural Revolution, China’s new leaders were particularly eager for infusions of Japanese capital—and the Japanese seemed happy to oblige. In the 25 years between 1979 and 2005, Japan provided China with a total of 3.4 trillion yen in official development assistance. China’s hunger for capital from the Western bloc to fuel modernization dovetailed perfectly with Japan’s strategy of developing new markets for its exports and new sources of energy and raw materials for its manufacturers.

During the second half of the 1990s, however, political tensions between the two countries grew increasingly pronounced. Under the administration of Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2001–6), diplomatic ties sank to a new low, giving rise to a relationship described as seirei keinetsu —politically cool, economically hot. The two countries’ increasing economic interdependence did little to quell their political disharmony.

In attempting to explain this deterioration in bilateral relations, observers have frequently cited changes in the international system attending China’s emergence as a major power and the rise of a xenophobic nationalism in both nations. But relatively little attention has been given to the way the internal dynamics of Japanese party politics have affected Tokyo’s China policy. In this study, I focused on the role of factional politics within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party—specifically, the waning influence of the party’s pro-China bloc as a buffer system stabilizing an inherently volatile relationship.

Rise of the Pro-China Faction

The history of the LDP’s pro-China faction goes back all the way to the 1950s, but the advent of a pro-China wing with genuine clout coincided with the political rise of Kakuei Tanaka and Masayoshi Ohira. Although the LDP entered the 1970s split between pro-Taiwan and pro-mainland forces, the pro-China factions led by Tanaka and Ohira were able to overcome those differences and chart the direction for Japan-China relations for most of the decade.

Contributing to this trend was the waning influence of the pro-Taiwan camp. In 1972, ignoring dissent within his party, Prime Minister Tanaka visited Beijing and signed a joint communiqu? on the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and China. This provoked an internal backlash, and negotiations for the 1974 Japan-China Aviation Agreement ran into fierce opposition from pro-Taiwan parliamentary groups in the Diet (the Japan-ROC Diet Members’ Consultative Council and the rightwing Seirankai).

The LDP’s pro-Taiwan movement was closely linked to the bitter anti-Tanaka campaign being waged by Takeo Fukuda and his faction. As a result, it gradually lost steam once Tanaka was forced to resign in 1974 amid charges of corruption. Moreover, when Fukuda became prime minister in 1976, he himself persuaded the recalcitrant members of his faction to support the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People’s Republic of China and helped unite the party behind the government’s China policy. Once Fukuda had signed the treaty in August 1978, the issue lost its potency as a focus of inter-factional strife.

The second factor contributing to the dominance of pro-Chinese policies within the LDP during this period was Tanaka’s unchallenged dominance of LDP politics, even after his public disgrace. In 1976, Tanaka was arrested in connection with the Lockheed kickback scandal and was obliged to withdraw into the political shadows. But instead of adhering to precedent and handing the reins over to a new generation, he continued to control his rapidly growing faction with an iron hand. With Ohira's faction, the Kochikai, as his ally, Tanaka was able to use the power of numbers to determine the selection of party leaders and perform the role of kingmaker through the 1970s and beyond. In essence, the Japanese government had a dual power structure, with Tanaka playing the role of “shadow shogun.”

Passing the Mantle

Taking full advantage of the pro-Chinese tendencies of the Tanaka and Ohira factions were Beijing’s “Japan hands,” led by Liao Chengzhi. Liao and his followers had carried out covert operations in Japan since the 1950s; they understood the ins and outs of Japanese politics and were well versed in the means of influencing policy behind the scenes. The Japanese government had a comparable group of experts within the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, a group known as the “China school,” which pursued a variety of unofficial diplomatic channels. Familiar with the Chinese style of negotiation, they were skilled at breaking through stalemates by reading between the lines of official Chinese positions and ascertaining what the Chinese actually wanted. Working closely with the pro-China faction of the LDP, they could pull political strings when needed to help resolve disputes between the two governments.

In the 1980s, the Chinese connections cultivated by Tanaka and Ohira during the previous decade passed to Masaharu Gotoda and Masayoshi Ito, respectively. This era is often remembered as a period of especially close ties between Japan and China, embodied in the personal rapport between Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone (1982–87) and General Secretary Hu Yaobang.

In fact, however, the Nakasone administration’s political orientation and nationalistic view of the past were a source of constant friction with the Chinese. Internally, moreover, a significant group of LDP politicians were unhappy with Tokyo’s continued “appeasement” of Beijing. It was above all the influence of Gotoda and Ito—backed by the Tanaka faction and the Kochikai—that kept Japan-China relations on an even keel during a time fraught with potential conflicts.

In February 1985, aspiring leader Noboru Takeshita spearheaded a rebellion within the Tanaka faction, and the Tanaka era came to an end. But the Keiseikai, as the faction was renamed, continued to maintain and nurture its Chinese connections under Takeshita’s leadership. The Keiseikei-dominated LDP government succeeded in bringing about the emperor’s historic visit to China (1992), a gesture that the Chinese had long sought.

Decline and Fall of the Buffer System

A turning point came in 1993 with the end of the Cold War and the realignment of Japan’s political parties. Until then, Japan’s political forces were rigidly divided into the left and right, and a political machine to dole out material benefits was the glue that held the competing conservative factions together. But as the left-right divide dissipated following the Cold War, and the Keiseikai lost its overwhelming numerical strength, conflicts between competing values began to surface within the conservative camp. By the second half of the 1990s, Prime Ministers Ryutaro Hashimoto (1996–98) and Keizo Obuchi (1998—2000)—both of the Keiseikai—were forced to navigate a narrow course between the traditional pro-China stance of their faction and the demands of the emerging post–Cold War international order.

Japan-China trade expanded rapidly in the early years of the twenty-first century as China’s economic development accelerated, and interaction between the people of the two countries steadily increased as well. Paradoxically, however, the frequency of interpersonal contact created new opportunities for friction. The Internet provided an increasingly influential platform for incendiary nationalist sentiment, subjecting political leaders in both countries to intense pressure.

Under Prime Minister Koizumi, top-level contact between the two countries ground to a halt, even as economic interdependence grew. Seirei keinetsu was rapidly becoming the new norm in Japan-China relations. Bilateral tensions under the Koizumi administration peaked in April 2005, when anti-Japanese protests, some of them violent, broke out across China.

Like many former adversaries, Japan and China have found it difficult to overcome bitter and conflicting memories of the past. Even during the 1980s, which has been called the golden age of Japan-China relations, tensions were continually bubbling up over such issues as the treatment of past Japanese aggression in Japan’s history textbooks or visits by government officials to Yasukuni Shrine, regarded by the Chinese as a symbol of unrepentant militarism. In the absence of a basic agreement dealing with these issues, the pro-Chinese bloc of the LDP played an essential role as a buffer system, preventing disputes from escalating and facilitating political solutions in collaboration with the “China school” of the Foreign Ministry and the “Japan hands” in the Chinese government.

However, the fracture of the pro-China Keiseikai in 1993—at a time of dramatic change in the international environment—was the beginning of the end for the old LDP political machine. The electoral reforms of the mid-1990s greatly diminished the role of the factions in electoral politics, bringing to a close an era in which the pro-China bloc of the LDP had a stabilizing effect on Japan-China relations.

    • Project Member, Political and Diplomatic Review, Tokyo Foundation for Policy Research
      Associate Professor, Faculty of Law, Seikei University
    • Masaya Inoue
    • Masaya Inoue

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