Beijing Enlists Washington to “Rein in” Tokyo

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 4

The Beijing foreign-policy team is conducting intensive brainstorming sessions on China-Japan relations in the “post-Koizumi era,” and President Hu Jintao’s advisers have recommended that more pressure be put on the United States to help “rein in” Tokyo. While this past weekend’s dialogue on bilateral ties between Chinese Deputy Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo and his Japanese counterpart, Shotaro Yachi, has apparently yielded little results, Beijing is confident that China’s fast-rising clout—and the development of the “relationship of stakeholders” with the U.S.—would strengthen the country’s hand in dealing with its long-time Asian rival.

Despite the fact that a quasi-Cold War lethargy has shrouded bilateral political links since Vice-Premier Wu Yi cut short her Japan tour in mid-2005 to protest Tokyo’s “erroneous views on history,” it is wrong to assume that either Beijing or Tokyo has abandoned efforts to repair ties. It is against the interests of both countries to let the situation of “cold politics, hot economics” deteriorate into “cold politics, chilly economics.” China (including Hong Kong) is now Japan’s largest trading partner. At the same time that President Hu is waging a campaign to develop zizhu chuangxin (“building up indigenous high tech and intellectual properties”), Beijing is eager to boost the transfer of top-level Japanese technology to China’s coastal “world factory.” Against this background, the Chinese Communist Party’s Leading Group on Foreign Affairs, which Hu heads, has since the beginning of this year focused on how relations across the Sea of Japan could be improved after the September retirement of Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Given that ties have slumped to their lowest point since the two states established diplomatic relations in 1972, the very fact that Dai—widely tipped to succeed incumbent Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing in early 2008—spent some 12 hours last weekend in marathon bridge-rebuilding talks with Yachi in Tokyo was indicative of both capitals’ eagerness to break the ice. Moreover, since early 2005 the Hu leadership has been pushing aggressive “united front tactics” to woo political and economic sectors in Japan outside of what Beijing calls the “Koizumi cabal.” CEOs of major Japanese multinationals visiting Beijing have been receiving red-carpet treatment. The same is true for retired politicians of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)—as well as the leaders of Japan’s opposition parties, business federations and NGOs—who may favor a more moderate and flexible line toward China.

Yet, since the couple of frontrunners to succeed Koizumi as both LDP chairman and premier this fall are likely to be hawks in defense and foreign policy matters, few China experts on Japan would say they have seen light at the end of the tunnel. Two noted frontrunners to take over from Koizumi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Aso, have well-earned reputations as hardliners. Abe and Aso are avid supporters of the ritual of worshipping at the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 World War II “Class A” criminals are honored. Aso ruffled more feathers last month by noting that even the Japanese Emperor should visit the Shinto shrine. Scholars such as Hu Jiping of the China Institute for Contemporary International Relations (CICIR) have even cited the possibility of the “normalization” (read perpetuation) of the current impasse in Sino-Japanese ties (Southern Weekend, an official Guangzhou paper, January 15).

Other strategists, however, have raised the possibility that as China’s global influence expands, and countries in the Asia-Pacific Region are without exception paying more attention to handling—and even humoring—the rising power, fast-shifting geopolitical realities will be putting pressure on even the toughest post-Koizumi cabinet to moderate its China policy. A new Japan strategy being mooted by advisers to the LGFA is to exploit the China-U.S.-Japan triangular relationship to Beijing’s favor. First of all, Beijing was happy that, during Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick’s two visits to China in the past half year, the senior official in charge of East Asia waxed eloquent about the U.S. and China being “stakeholders” in the 21st century international order. A minority of Beijing think-tank intellectuals have interpreted Zoellick’s concept as asking China to play at most a second-fiddle role in a world order designed—and dominated—by Washington. Yet the bulk of Hu aides, including former vice-president of the CCP Central Party School Zheng Bijian, have seen more pluses than minuses in the State Department’s latest formulation of the two countries’ “constructive cooperative relationship.”

Zheng and others have given an optimistic—and self-serving—spin to the concept of stakeholders, which in its Chinese translation, liyi shuangguanzhe, means “parties with intertwined interests.” According to a Chinese source close to the foreign policy establishment, Beijing reckons that in tandem with the relentless expansion of the country’s economic and military might, Washington will, for the sake of its own national interests, have to engage in ever-more give-and-take with the emerging quasi-superpower. “The George Bush administration needs Beijing’s help on the global war on terrorism, particularly regarding North Korea and Iran,” the source said. “And Beijing is in a good position to demand that in return, Washington would help China rein in not only Taipei’s pro-separatist tendencies but also aspects of Tokyo’s hawkish policies on the issues of history, nationalism and foreign policy.”

Hu and his advisers are, of course, aware of the special nature of the U.S.-Japan alliance, particularly the fact that the military aspect of the pact has been strengthened in the past year partly in response to the leaps-and-bounds modernization of the People’s Liberation Army. Yet Chinese diplomats seem convinced that some of the manifestations of the Koizumi cabinet’s assertive line on security and constitutional issues, including the Yasukuni controversy, have alienated not only China and South Korea but also several Southeast Asian countries. Moreover, to the extent that Washington wants Tokyo to play the role of a “sheriff” in the Asia-Pacific region, Japan’s perceived missteps and growing unpopularity may diminish the country’s usefulness to America.

It is therefore not surprising that the Chinese media have made much of the fact that Zoellick took the initiative in discussing the deadlocked Sino-Japanese ties during his recent trips to China and Japan. The International Herald Leader played up the fact that, during his visit to Tokyo last month, Zoellick had, in the official journal’s words, “urged Japan’s leaders to improve relations with China” (International Herald Leader, Beijing, January 26). Peking University international affairs professor Zhang Xizheng noted that as China-U.S. relations mature, there might come a point “when the value of Japan as a pawn [in Washington’s Asia-Pacific game plan] might decrease significantly” (Southern Weekend, an official Guangzhou paper, January 15). Zhang and other analysts pointed to the fact that in 1972, then-U.S. President Richard Nixon opened up a new era of U.S.-China relations without prior consultation with Japan. Implicit in these arguments is the view that if the “stakeholders’ relationship” were to take a leap forward in the coming decade, Washington might, at least on selective issues and arenas, choose Beijing rather than Tokyo.

Chinese diplomats and strategists who think Beijing could exploit the ever-changing dynamics in the China-U.S.-Japan triangle to their advantage have cited developments in the equally intriguing China-U.S.-Taiwan triangle. Beijing is generally satisfied that while Washington has continued to pressurize Taipei to buy U.S. weapons, the Bush Administration is at the same time preventing the Chen Shui-bian cabinet from going down the road of de jure independence. For example, the State Department has slammed President Chen for his recent statements about possibly revising the Republic of China Constitution as well as abolishing the National Unification Council that had been set up by the Nationalist government in the 1990s. “[Ex-president] Jiang Zemin used to say that the quickest road to Taipei is via Washington,” said the Chinese source close to the diplomatic establishment. “If China could develop with the U.S. the kind of strategic partnership that it has firmed up with powers ranging from France to Russia, it is not inconceivable for Hu or his successor to one day say that ‘the quickest road to Tokyo is via Washington.’”

Japan, of course, is not Taiwan. While China and the U.S. may have found synergy in the war against terrorism, rivalry between the “strategic competitors” in areas ranging from energy to Asian security is intensifying. It thus seems far-fetched to suggest that Washington will, in the near term, be willing to strike any kind of a deal with the PRC at the expense of the U.S.-Japan alliance. Yet it is notable that during Koizumi’s summit with Bush in Kyoto last autumn, when the dire straits of Sino-Japanese ties were briefly mentioned, the Japanese leader betrayed a sense of insecurity—and went on protest that not even the White House could dissuade him from visiting the shrine. Despite the apparent rock-solid U.S.-Japan alliance, differences between the two erstwhile foes go beyond tiffs such as the controversy over the import of American beef. Hu advisers who have claimed that Beijing could use America to curb “nationalistic” excesses in Japan are also saying that once Japanese leaders realize their country’s vulnerability—especially the possibility, albeit in the longer term, that Washington may side with Beijing over some issues—Tokyo may be more predisposed toward seeking compromises with China over economic as well as political matters.