ties back on the ropes
By J Sean Curtin
Just when it seemed Japan-China ties couldn't get much worse - while it also
seemed there were unprecedented opportunities for political improvements to
equal the burgeoning economic ties - political relations stumbled back on to
the ropes. Last week, Japanese hawks managed to force a popular magazine for
young people, Weekly Young Jump, not to publish a "comic strip" depicting the
Nanjing Massacre of up to 300,000 Chinese (claiming it didn't really happen),
and recently Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's heir-apparent himself visited
the Yasukuni Shrine where convicted war criminals are memorialized - and he
said he'd do it again.
Koizumi's recent cabinet reshuffle and the apparent political ascendancy of
China's reform-minded President Hu Jintao created an opportunity for a gentle
thawing in top-level Sino-Japanese dialogue. However, over the past few weeks,
a series of bitter and long-rumbling disagreements have darkened the political
horizon, in effect extinguishing any hopes for brighter bilateral skies ahead.
Koizumi's presumptive successor, Shinzo Abe, has added to the sense of gloom by
reigniting the festering controversy that threatens long-term ties. In August
he visited the controversial Yasukuni war shrine, honoring Japan's war dead,
included convicted Class A war criminals, and he said a prime minister should
make such pilgrimages.
As economic bonds between the two neighbors continue to grow at phenomenal
speed - China appears poised to become Japan's largest trading partner -
optimism for a genuine breakthrough has been high. In the first eight months of
2004, the total value of Japan's trade with China hit almost 11.6 trillion yen
(US$106.2 billion), compared with 13.4 trillion yen with the United States. As
the two economies grow ever more intertwined, unease in the business community
increases over the fragile state of political ties, due in large part to
Japan's World War II aggression, failure to make amends, and Koizumi's
determined visits to Yasukuni. There is palpable worry that if the situation
deteriorates any further, Japanese companies could lose out in the increasingly
competitive Chinese market.
A litany of unresolved territorial, political and historical disputes has
plagued Sino-Japanese relations for decades, periodically straining relations.
However, under the Koizumi administration the frequency and intensity of these
incidents have drastically increased. The most alarming aspect about the
current flare-up is that this time Japan's political elite appears to have set
itself on a collision course with Beijing, a move that could be disastrous for
both nations, and one that might permanently damage bilateral relations.
Since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has adopted an aggressive and
nationalist stance toward Beijing. The most high-profile aspect of this
approach has been his annual pilgrimage to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.
The facility honors Japan's war dead as well as several war criminals
responsible for atrocities committed in China during World War II. Beijing
believes that a prime minister paying homage at such an establishment is the
clearest possible sign that Japan is not truly remorseful about its brutal
President Hu recently reiterated China's position to the Speaker of Japan's
Lower House, Yohei Kono. He reminded him, "The most pressing issue facing us is
the skillful handling of the Yasukuni issue. The longer the issue is left
unresolved, the deeper the emotional hurt suffered by the [Chinese] victims.
There could also be side-effects in other areas of exchange and cooperation."
Koizumi's shrine forays have made him a virtual pariah with the Chinese
leadership. This status was most recently confirmed when Chinese Premier Wen
Jiabao refused to hold a bilateral meeting with him on the sidelines of this
month's Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Hanoi. Unlike almost every other major
world leader, Koizumi has never been invited to Beijing to meet with Hu. He has
visited the Yasukuni Shrine four times since his election and his presumptive
heir-apparent, Shinzo Abe, has visited the shrine and says he will continue to
do so, should he inherit Koizumi's mantle.
Tensions escalate over the past month
Over the past month, sharp disagreements have emerged with Beijing over Tokyo's
bid for a permanent seat on the United Nations Security Council. China, one of
five veto-wielding council members (the United Kingdom, France, Russia and the
United States are the others), has been highly critical of Japan's aspirations,
saying other candidates are more worthy. Kong Quan, a Chinese Foreign Ministry
spokesman, said, "We believe that if a country wishes to play a responsible
role in international affairs, it must have a clear understanding of the
historical questions concerning itself."
Beijing is also apparently unhappy with Koizumi's selection of Nobutaka
Machimura as the new foreign minister. China dislikes the nationalistic views
Machimura expressed while he was education minister, as well as his own
excursions to the Yasukuni Shrine.
A new row over the Nanjing Massacre of Chinese by Japanese soldiers has
compounded current woes. Last week, a group of right-wing local politicians
managed to force a popular magazine for young people, Weekly Young Jump, from
publishing a comic strip depicting the Nanjing Massacre (which lasted for at
least six weeks from December 1937 into 1938). The lawmakers claimed there was
no proof the well-document atrocity ever took place, ignoring the Tokyo War
Crimes Tribunal's determination that more than 140,000 Chinese were
slaughtered, while many Chinese historians estimate the death toll to be
300,000 or more.
The final and most devastating nail in the coffin was meticulously hammered
into place by Shinzo Abe, currently the strongest contender to succeed Koizumi
and the grandson of a former prime minister. Abe has breathed new life into the
deadly Yasukuni controversy. During a recent television interview, he boldly
claimed that just like his mentor Koizumi, he also would visit the contentious
shrine if he inherits the political throne.
Next prime minister should visit Yasukuni
Abe confessed that if he gained the coveted crown, he would feel obligated to
pay homage at the shrine. With passion in his voice, he explained, "It is only
natural for the leader of a country to go there to console those who have died
for their country."
Rejecting arguments about the separation of the state and religion, as well as
the question of whether a prime minister should only be allowed to go to the
shrine in his capacity as a private citizen, Abe said, "It doesn't make sense
to argue about if the visit is official or not. The prime minister should just
be allowed to go there."
Abe last paid his respects at the shrine on August 15, the anniversary of
Japan's World War II surrender and the day considered the most provocative for
making such an outing. Even Koizumi has avoided going to the shrine on that
day, although before he became prime minister he said he would. At the time of
Abe's latest pilgrimage, he was the secretary general of the governing Liberal
Democratic Party (LDP), the No 2 party official after the prime minister.
Abe stepped down from his post in the cabinet reshuffle, saying he wanted to
take responsibility for his party's poor showing in the Upper House election.
In an unusual move, he was gently demoted one position to deputy secretary
general of the LDP. Many observers considered the slight downward move a shrewd
ploy, allowing Abe to put some strategic distance between himself and the prime
minister, better positioning himself for a shot at the No 1 slot. Since his
demotion, he has maintained a high profile and opinion polls consistently show
him to be the overwhelming favorite to replace Koizumi.
Chinese policymakers shocked
Abe's remarks have genuinely shocked Chinese policymakers who were working on
the assumption that no future Japanese prime minister would dare risk stirring
up the kind of anti-Japanese sentiment Koizumi has generated. China's Japan
policy has been based on the principle of isolating Koizumi and patiently
waiting for his successor. His premiership has been considered an aberration,
not a new trend. Abe's comments challenged this assessment, completely altering
the future dynamics of the equation.
If the leadership of both countries does not tread extremely carefully in the
coming months, relations between them may become locked into the currently
unsatisfactory "hot economic, cold political" configuration, a situation that
would cast a dark shadow over their long-term relationship.
Good top-level Sino-Japanese dialogue is a key component for smooth regional
development. The most worrying aspect about the current situation is that
Japan's elite lawmakers just don't seem capable of grasping this fundamental
J Sean Curtin is a GLOCOM fellow at the Tokyo-based Japanese Institute of
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