For better Sino-Japan ties
The death of Kim Jong-il caused Japanese Premier Yoshihiko Noda to shift the focus of his discussions in Beijing from bilateral issues to North Korea. Nonetheless, the first visit to China by a Japanese prime minister since the Democratic Party gained power in 2009 did result in an improvement in relations.
China’s desire for a fruitful visit was reflected in its request for Noda to postpone his visit so it would not coincide with the anniversary of the Nanjing massacre of Dec. 13, 1937. Nonetheless, the China-Japan relationship remains basically unchanged, with such issues as joint development in the East China Sea unresolved.
Noda and Chinese leaders ― including both President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao ― held what the Chinese called “an in-depth exchange of views on China-Japan relations as well as international and regional issues of common interest, arriving at important consensus” and agreed on the goal to transform the East China Sea from a zone of conflict into “a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.”
That is not going to be easy. Sino-Japanese relations were at a nadir in 2010, when a Chinese fishing trawler captain was arrested after his boat collided with two Japanese coast guard vessels in the vicinity of the disputed Diaoyu, or Senkaku, islands.
Tension subsided last year, with China offering aid to Japan in the wake of the earthquake in March. In late 2011, two Chinese fishing boats were detained by Japan but the issue was handled in low-key fashion. There was no attempt to politicize the issue and China said they were “ordinary fishery cases.”
However, although both fishing boat captains acknowledged that they had intruded into Japanese waters, Beijing repeatedly called on Japan to “safeguard Chinese fishermen’s legitimate rights and interests” instead of promising to clamp down on its fishermen to ensure they do not behave illegally.
Noda went from Beijing to New Delhi in a move that many observers would characterize as an attempt to develop Japan-India relations so as to counter Chinese influence in the region. However, a Chinese spokesman said China welcomed “mutual state visits between Japan and India” ― a sign that Beijing wants a more stable relationship with Japan.
While China hoped that its aid to Japan after the earthquake would strengthen relations, a public opinion survey showed that the percentage of Japanese who feel negatively toward China had increased to 80 percent in 2011 from 72 percent in 2010. Similarly, Chinese who have a good opinion of Japan dropped 10 percentage points in 2011, to 28.6 percent.
Meanwhile, the Japan-U.S. alliance has been bolstered. Support from the American military in particular after the catastrophe strengthened Japanese confidence in the U.S. commitment to their defense.
China’s recent assertive international behavior, especially its naval expansion, has caused Tokyo to improve security cooperation not only with America but with such countries as India and Indonesia as well.
Indeed, Noda’s visit to China came after the first trilateral defense dialogue involving the U.S., Japan and India ― countries that share common values.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the establishment of China-Japan diplomatic relations and offers an opportunity for the holding of events that can improve the atmosphere. A visit to Japan by a Chinese leader can do much to mend relations.
Both countries recognize that what is needed is greater mutual trust but, as long as China continues its military expansion without increasing transparency, such a goal is likely to remain elusive.
Only progress on resolving real issues, such as the signing of a treaty on joint gas development in the East China Sea, can help ease mutual suspicions.
But, in this interconnected world, China-Japan relations are inextricably connected to the countries’ relations with other players, such as the U.S., South Korea, India and Southeast Asia.
Japan is in a quandary. It is now dependent on China for its economic health but looks to the U.S. to guarantee its security. Such a state is unsustainable in the long term but is unavoidable as long as China’s basic values appear to be inconsistent with those of key members of the international community.
What Japan, the U.S. and other countries need to do is to attempt to integrate China into the international community through the acceptance of global norms so that the rest of the world does not fear the country’s rise.
The alternative is an unstable international environment characterized by mutual suspicions and the possible emergence of a new cold war.
Frank Ching is a journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong. Email the writer at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @FrankChing1.