China may block Japan deals over shrine
visits By J Sean Curtin
could lose about US$25 billion in two enormous contracts
- a bullet train and an international thermonuclear
fusion reactor - because Chinese public opinion is
inflamed by what it sees as Tokyo's resurgent militarism
and four defiant visits by Prime Minister Junichiro
Koizumi to a war shrine. Then again, maybe not.
Despite a flurry of news articles in China and
Japan, nothing has been decided. Some political
observers emphasize that these days China is pragmatic
above all else, especially when it comes to economics.
Chinese leaks to the media expressing anger with Japan
could well be efforts to play to Chinese public opinion.
If China tilts away from Japan on the deals, it may well
be for non-political reasons, such as technology
transfer in the case of the Beijing-Shanghai bullet
train. China wants technology, not ready-built trains,
and France may have the inside track. Germany is also in
Dr Chris Hood, director of the
Cardiff Japanese Studies Center in Britain and author of
a forthcoming book on Japanese high-speed trains,
Shinkansen, said: "I think it is somewhat
unlikely that China was ever seriously considering using
the Shinkansen system ... After all, they have been
looking into the matter for at least the last 10 years."
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in London on
Thursday refused to discuss the validity of the news
reports, saying that China does not comment on
speculative media stories.
"Just pinning all the
blame on Koizumi's Yasukuni Shrine visits for losing the
train contract [if Japan loses it] is simply a
convenient excuse," said Dr Phil Deans, director of the
Contemporary China Institute at London University, in an
interview with Asia Times Online. He added, however,
"Anti-Japanese sentiment in China is worse now than it
was a decade ago."
Deals vital to Japan's
economic recovery The deals are economically
vital to Japan - which needs China's voracious appetite
for Japanese technology and products - to fuel its
nascent economic recovery. And they are politically
important to both nations.
One deal is for a
high-speed, 1,300-kilometer bullet train from Beijing to
Shanghai for 1.5 trillion yen (US$13.75 billion); the
other is an international nuclear research project worth
up to $10 billion - the location to be decided by the
United States, Russia, the European Union and other
Japan needs China's backing,
otherwise France will almost certainly get the nuclear
contract. Tokyo wants to build the reactor in northern
Japan in the village of Rokkasho in Aomori prefecture;
France, backed by the EU, wants to build it in the
southeastern city of Cadarache. Some observers say
Japan's earthquakes could pose a problem, but Japan says
the location is close to a port and it will take major
France also appears much
closer to closing a deal because of the highly
successful visit of Chinese President Hu Jintao to Paris
in late January. At that time, French President Jacques
Chirac cemented ties and condemned Taiwan's planned
referendum on targeting Chinese missiles at the island.
Nuclear experts will meet in March to decide between
Japan and France.
The date of China's decision
on the bullet train is not known.
reports cannot be discounted entirely. Tokyo is on
notice, through articles in Chinese and Japanese media,
that Beijing might well award the train contract to
France and also support construction of the
thermonuclear fusion reactor in France, because of
Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine - he made his
last visit on January 1 - and what is seen as a revival
of Japanese militarism. The dispatch of as many as 1,000
Japanese troops to Iraq has fueled this perception.
Chinese people remember Japan's war
crimes Beijing's Foreign Ministry, in interviews
with Asia Times Online, had said it wanted to award the
contracts to Japan in the interests of promoting China's
geostrategic and economic position globally and in Asia.
Chinese popular opinion, however, cannot be discounted,
and outrage over Japan's war crimes has not been
overcome by the belated efforts of foreign-policy
bureaucrats in the Chinese capital.
appear, however, from articles in the Hong Kong-based Ta
Kung Pao, the China Daily in Beijing and one in the
Asahi Shimbun that China may have lost patience with
neo-nationalist Prime Minister Koizumi. After defying
numerous requests from Beijing not to indulge in
nationalist gestures that inflame Chinese public
opinion, Beijing - or some quarters in Beijing -
apparently have decided to ratchet up the pressure and
publicly warn and possibly punish Tokyo for Koizumi's
repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors
Japan's war dead. He has made four visits since he took
office in April 2001 - more than any Japanese leader
since the end of World War II.
has the potential to undermine the expanding long-term
economic ties between the two Asian neighbors,
especially if mutual perceptions in each country
continue to deteriorate.
economic ties are the strongest they have ever been -
two-way trade hit a record $132.42 billion in 2003 -
relations between top political leaders have been
severely strained since Koizumi took office. His
repeated displays of nationalism have tarnished Japan's
image in China. In recent years, Beijing has attempted
to improve bilateral relations, especially on the daily
government-to-government level, but Koizumi's
neo-nationalism has made himpersona non grata in
the Middle Kingdom.
According to senior Chinese
officials quoted on February 17 in the Asahi Shimbun,
Koizumi's contentious shrine trips will cost Japan the
bullet-train contract. No official announcement of the
winner is expected for some time but sources in the
Chinese Foreign Ministry indicate that it would be
difficult to award the contact to Japan, as public
opinion is strongly against such a move.
Chinese threaten to jump in front of bullet
trains "Beside tough competition from Germany and
France, there is a lot of public anger about the idea of
awarding the contract to Japan. Some people have even
threatened to throw themselves in front of the trains,
if Japan won the deal," said Deans.
Asahi article also said Beijing has decided to throw its
weight behind a French bid to host the
multibillion-dollar International Thermonuclear
Experimental Reactor (ITER). French sources, citing the
successful Paris visit of President Hu Jintao, say
France now has Beijing's full backing.
other factors will contribute to the ultimate decision
on contracts, Beijing is not missing any opportunity to
raise the issue of the shrine visits. Chinese Foreign
Minister Li Zhaoxing recently was quoted as saying: "We
will never tolerate an incumbent Japanese leader going
to a shrine enshrining class A war criminals. There is
no leader in Germany or Italy who pays homage to the
soul of [Adolf] Hitler or [Benito] Mussolini."
The Yasukuni Shrine memorializes Japan's war
dead, including several class A war criminals, such as
the wartime leader General Hideki Tojo. Class A war
criminals - the worst according to international law -
were enshrined in 1978, and since then only one other
serving Japanese prime minister, Yasuhiro Nakasone, has
visited the shrine, making a single trip in 1985.
During World War II, Japan's regime exploited
Yasukuni and its emotive, nationalistic appeal to
generate ultra-patriotism and encourage extreme acts of
self-sacrifice, such as suicide missions by kamikaze
pilots. Waves of protest in Japan surround every Koizumi
Koizumi comfortable visiting the
shrine The remarks by China's foreign minister
and leaked comments on the loss of contracts were
sparked by Koizumi's recent statements in parliament and
at a later news conference justifying his shrine visits.
Koizumi told lawmakers he felt comfortable visiting a
shrine that honors the war dead. When reporters asked
whether he felt there was a difference between convicted
class A war criminals and the ordinary Japanese war
dead, Koizumi simply responded, "I do not dwell on it.
"I have no intention of changing my mind just
because other countries told me to do this or that." He
added, "Be it the people of China, South Korea or
elsewhere, I don't complain about how they express
respect for their war dead."
Koizumi's logic is
frequently echoed in the conservative press. In an
editorial on January 6, the influential Yomiuri Shimbun
stated, "The issue of when and in what manner a prime
minister of a nation should pray for the war dead is,
primarily, a domestic issue to be decided on the basis
of the country's traditions and customs. Other countries
are in no position to say anything about it."
Many Chinese strongly disagree. A recent China
Daily commentary said: "Without a complete reflection on
Japan's past militarism in the post-World War II period,
Koizumi's Yasukuni visits signal a dangerous precedent
for the nation's political trend."
many people understand China's feelings, but opinion
polls indicate that an increasing number are becoming
receptive to Koizumi's interpretation - it's Japan's
business, and nobody else's. An NHK survey conducted
after Koizumi's most recent Yasukuni foray indicated
that about 49 percent of those polled supported it while
41 percent were opposed.
dismiss Asian 'fuss' Hiroki, a 20-year-old
medical student who declined to give his family name,
said, "I think it's not right to say that Mr Koizumi
should not visit the shrine just because he is the prime
minister. He is also an individual, and if he wants to
go I think people should respect his wishes." Yasuyo, a
mother in her mid-20s, said, "I think Asian countries
are making too much fuss over the Yasukuni Shrine. I
think we can lose sight of what is important today if we
keep on harping on about the past."
Japanese who oppose paying homage at the shrine clearly
understand that it damages regional relations. Mari
Suzuki, 21, a university student of economics, said,
"Koizumi's shrine visits make Japan look like we are not
sorry for the war. That is very regrettable." Kanami,
24, a health-care worker, said, "I don't understand what
the PM is thinking and why he forcefully visits the
shrine despite the strong international opposition."
Despite intense regional debate about the
shrine, many young Japanese have no opinion on the
issue. Sachimi Kudo, a 23-year-old office worker, is
typical. "I don't have any interest or any feelings
towards the shrine. I don't think I'll have any in the
future, either." She added, "I don't really care where
the prime minister visits."
While public apathy
on the issue may be a problem in Japan, this is not the
case in China.
Yoshibumi Wakamiya, the head of
the Asahi Shimbun editorial board, has advised Koizumi
"to find a way to remember the war dead that leads to
ethnic reconciliation rather than stick to Yasukuni
visits that provoke the anger of our Asian neighbors."
It seems unlikely that Koizumi will heed this advice, as
he has already ignored proposals from a government panel
that suggested building a new memorial to the war dead
to avoid controversy.
Unless Koizumi tones down
his nationalist rhetoric and mends fences with Beijing,
the underlying tensions in Sino-Japanese relations are
expected to have a negative impact on economic ties.
More alarming, unless something is done to address the
deterioration in mutual understanding between the two
peoples, bilateral relations will increasingly be prone
History may record that
Koizumi's shrine visits were some of the most expensive
ever made - beyond a bullet train and thermonuclear
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOMfellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of
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