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UPDATED: December 14, 2006 NO.40 OCT.5, 2006
Chilly Ties Persist
Sino-Japanese relations seem unlikely to improve under the leadership of Shinzo Abe

The deteriorating state of relations between China and Japan may persist under the government of Shinzo Abe, who won the presidential election of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) on September 20 and was named the new prime minister of Japan on September 26.

Judging from Abe’s public remarks and election proposals, there are enough reasons to believe that the successor to Junichiro Koizumi will hold an even tougher policy toward China.

During Koizumi’s time in office, Sino-Japanese relations reached their coldest point since the normalization of bilateral relations in 1972. The outgoing prime minister visited the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including World War II war criminals, on six occasions, which gravely damaged the political foundation of relations between China and Japan and led to a halt in mutual visits between the senior officials of the two countries.

Furthermore, the antagonistic sentiment between the peoples of the two countries has also been aggravated. Due to the negative effect of the cold political relations between the two countries, trade between the two countries has decreased, and Japan’s investment in China has been shrinking.

On the issues of energy and other resources, Japan has also competed with China, including an oil pipeline project in Russia and oil and iron ore projects in Sudan. The two countries also have had disputes related to territory in the East China Sea.

Besides, the ties between Japan and Taiwan have become closer in recent years, developing from economic contacts to security cooperation, which has challenged the core interest of China.

The worsening bilateral ties between China and Japan, two important Asian countries, seem likely to continue after the change of Japan’s prime minister. Abe appears more hawkish than his predecessor. As an important member of Japan’s pro-Taiwan group, he used to actively advocate permitting former Taiwan leader Lee Teng-hui, who backs “Taiwan independence,” to visit Japan.

On the issue of oil and gas fields in the East China Sea, Abe has frequently delivered provocative remarks. He also remains in close contact with right-wing forces in Japan and has visited the Yasukuni Shrine. He holds that it is China’s wishful thinking that it would be able to separate a few militarists from the bulk of the Japanese people. Abe’s aide for diplomacy, Hisahiko Okazaki, who was also his teacher, holds typically right-wing views in Japan’s political arena.

Compared with Abe, Koizumi seems more moderate. After all, Koizumi has always held that China’s rise is an opportunity for Japan. He accepts the Tokyo tribunal’s verdict on World War II war criminals, and has repeatedly mentioned the speech delivered by Japan’s former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama on August 15, 1995, which acknowledged and apologized for Japan’s actions in World War II.

But, will Abe proceed down Koizumi’s road? That does not appear to be so simple. The domestic and international environments mean that he cannot do whatever he wants.

First, Abe must improve Sino-Japanese relations and lead Japan out of its current diplomatic predicament, which can show his political capability to the nation, so that the LDP can win parliamentary elections next year.

Second, most Japanese, from ordinary citizens to political figures, hope to dispel the bad effect of Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine. A survey by the Japanese Foreign Ministry in March shows that 77.9 percent of the Japanese polled expressed the view that Japan should improve the worsening ties with China caused by Koizumi’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

Third, the United States neither wants Japan to get out of the alliance with it, nor does it want to see the isolation of Japan in Asia. Thus, in the near future, Washington would like to see better Sino-Japanese relations.

Fourth, the recovery of Japan’s economy has mainly been due to the fast growth of bilateral trade with China. The economies of the two countries are complementary and mutually beneficial. In this sense, maintaining good political relations to develop economic relations serves the interests of the peoples of both countries.

Abe’s hawkish background and the impact of reality may jointly determine that his policy toward China will be two-sided and unstable. On one side, he may show diplomatic flexibility. He may first make a new promise on the issue of Yasukuni Shrine visits in order to provisionally remove the political obstacle to the meetings of the leaders of the two countries. It is also possible that he may suggest the two countries hold a wide-ranging strategic dialogue on various issues between the two countries or elevate the level of the dialogues that already exist, such as the regional cooperation in East Asia, energy cooperation, oil and gas development in the East China Sea, or even military and strategic dialogues.

He is also likely to discuss new cooperation channels on economic contacts and the development of bilateral political relations. He may attach importance to cultural exchanges, educational cooperation, people-to-people contact and personnel exchanges, so as to increase the good feelings between the two peoples.

On the other side, it may also be true that Sino-Japanese relations will not improve substantially. Coordinating with the United States and containing China will still be Japan’s diplomatic strategy. Japan is also likely to maintain its strategic advantage over China by relying on the alliance with the United States. Abe also favors a strategic “alliance of democracies” among the United States, Australia and India to offer a counterweight to China.

In addition, Japan may develop its military under the pretext of the missile and nuclear threat from North Korea, with the real intention being to deal with China. Japan is likely to provoke events on the Taiwan issue and the oil and gas development of the East China Sea and damage relations with China. Of course, such events as anti-China remarks and a new round of textbook disputes may occur.

But, generally speaking, Sino-Japanese relations during Abe’s tenure will not spin out of control. Although the two countries will not repeat their friendly relations of the 1980s, they will not have a hostile confrontation or conflict in the foreseeable future.

The author is a researcher with the China Institute of International Studies

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