China-Japan Rapprochement in Perspective

Publication: China Brief Volume: 8 Issue: 1

Last week, Chinese leaders presented Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda with a warm welcome during his first visit to China since he assumed office last September. The visit, which took place from December 27 to 30, followed Fukuda’s first visit to the United States as prime minister last November. The order of these visits is consistent with Fukuda’s foreign policy view that the U.S.-Japan alliance is the firm lynchpin of Japan’s foreign policy, and that a strong U.S.-Japan alliance will be the basis for Japan’s active diplomacy vis-à-vis Asia, particularly China and South Korea. This philosophy has been described as one that pursues “synergy (kyomei) between the U.S.-Japan alliance and Asia diplomacy” (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), November 21, 2007).

Having confirmed with President Bush the importance of the alliance to both the United States and Japan, Mr. Fukuda visited China, Japan’s largest trading partner since 2006. During the visit, the leaders of both sides displayed strong political will to present the China-Japan relationship as a positive one. At the same time, they introduced a number of initiatives to ensure a strengthening of ties at various other levels of the bilateral relationship aside from just the executive.

China-Japan relationship since 2001

In addition to official talks—which he conducted with Chairman Wu Bangguo of the National People’s Congress, Premier Wen Jiabao and President Hu Jintao—Mr. Fukuda’s four-day visit was filled with displays of friendly interactions between him and Chinese leaders, people and culture. His activities included: delivering a speech at Peking University, which was broadcast nationwide in China; a meeting with representatives of China-Japan friendship organizations; playing catch with Premier Wen; a visit to a Chinese elementary school; a visit to Tianjin Economic-Technological Development Area (TEDA), where he observed the Toyota Motors plant; a trip to the home of Chinese philosopher Confucius, in Qufu city, where he was greeted by traditional dance performers and enjoyed displaying his calligraphy skills and appreciation for China-Japan cultural ties (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), December 30, 2007).

Such a warm display of hospitality being extended to a Japanese prime minister by his Chinese counterparts would have been unthinkable in the first half of this decade. From 2001 to 2006—when former Prime Minister Junichi Koizumi was in office—observers noted that the China-Japan political relationship was at its worst since 1989, the year of the Tiananmen Square incident (The Japan Times, April 20, 2005). Concerns were expressed over a relationship characterized by “cold politics, hot economy” (Embassy of the People’s Republic of China in Japan’s Website, November 19, 2004). Among other issues, historical grievances and disputes over the natural gas field in the East China Sea greatly fueled suspicion and mistrust between the two nations during this period. With regard to history, issues that brought substantial media attention were Japanese history textbooks that allegedly played down Japanese atrocities committed in China during WWII and Koizumi’s visits to the contentious Yasukuni shrine where Class-A war criminals are honored. Summit-level visits halted after 2002, although Prime Minister Koizumi repeatedly stated that he welcomes dialogue with his counterparts. In May 2005, China’s Vice Premier Wu Yi abruptly cancelled her meeting with Koizumi, which Japan criticized and speculated was in retaliation of Koizumi’s shrine visits.

Less than three years ago, anti-Japanese disturbances took place during the August 2004 Asian Cup soccer game, and the massive anti-Japan demonstrations in Beijing were headlines in April 2005 (The New York Times, April 11, 2005). In response, Japanese policy experts and scholars have accused the Chinese government of harboring anti-Japanese sentiments and nationalistic policy that date back to 1994 under former President Jiang Zemin, and for deflecting its people’s frustrations away from their government toward Japan (The Sankei Shimbun, April 20, 2005; June 29, 2005). Anti-China sentiments rose to 65% among the Japanese people during this period (Yomiuri Shimbun, August 8, 2006).

The bilateral relationship began to show signs of improvement in September 2006 when former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was elected. Mr. Abe chose to visit China—and South Korea—first before visiting the United States to signal the importance of Asia diplomacy in Japanese foreign policy. The United States was supportive and welcomed this decision. Another step in equal measure, after taking office Mr. Abe refused to comment on whether he would visit the shrine and never made a visit while in office.

Change in Political Will and Leadership

The fact that the China-Japan political relationship turned from being at its worst to entering a “spring season”—as the Chinese and Japanese leaders described it—in less than three years shows how easily this bilateral relationship could be presented, either positively or negatively, based on political will and leadership [1]. Less than three years since the demonstrations, Fukuda was emphasizing to Chinese leaders his realization after meeting them that Japan and China see eye-to-eye on many issues.

There were incentives on both sides to signal this positive change at the political leadership level. First, both sides have high stakes to protect, as bilateral ties strengthened greatly since the two countries normalized relations in 1972. As Wen noted, bilateral trade reached $207.3 billion in 2006, which is approximately 200 times the level in 1972, and approximately 4.8 million people traveled between the two countries that year, which is 500 times more than the amount in 1972 (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MOFA], December 28, 2007).

Moreover, from Japan’s standpoint, having a poor relationship with its neighbors—including China—undermines its international standing. At the time, some U.S. observers expressed concern that Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits were hurting the interests of not only Japan, but also the United States and others [2]. Diplomatic sources cited Pakistan and India as examples of how a country’s poor relationship with its neighbors could undermine also undermine its international standing. At a more practical level, Japan aspires to attain Chinese support for its bid to join the U.N. Security Council as well obtain China’s support on the North Korea issue, particularly as it regards North Korea’s past abduction of Japanese citizens. Cooperation with the world’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting country, China, on energy conservation and environmental protection is also a key factor for Japan to succeed in its efforts in these areas.

From China’s perspective, regional stability is vital to its economic growth, and hence the maintenance of a positive relationship with Japan is critical. China has a near-term incentive to send a positive image of itself to the world as the 2008 Beijing Olympics draw near. Moreover, anti-Japanese policy and education in the 1990s show no evidence of having produced anything fundamentally positive for China, other than to increase anti-China sentiments in Japan and threaten to become an obstacle to a bilateral economic relationship.

Mutually-Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests

Fukuda’s visit was intended to forge a relationship of trust at the summit level, and thereby strive for an improved, future-oriented bilateral relationship and establish a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” a goal set out under former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s premiership (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs [MOFA], October 8, 2006). In his Peking University speech, Fukuda presented the three pillars of this relationship: “mutually-beneficial cooperation” (e.g. environment and energy conservation); “mutual understanding and mutual trust” (e.g. youth exchanges, intellectual exchanges, and exchanges in the area of national security); and “contributions to international society” (e.g. battle against terrorism, climate change, North Korean issues, U.N. reform, African development).

In his meeting with Premier Wen, Fukuda emphasized the “responsibility” that falls on China and Japan toward Asia and the world to maintain peace and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific region, and exchanged views on strengthening the three pillars mentioned above. With regard to “mutually beneficial cooperation,” the two leaders highlighted cooperation efforts on climate change and environmental/energy issues in particular, and issued a joint communiqué [3]. Fukuda has made discussion of these matters his priority during his trip. Japan has endeavored to lead globally in these areas, as it prepares for the G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit to be held from July 7 to 9 next year. As Japan boasts world-class energy-conserving technology, Fukuda proposed, for example, to establish the Japan-China Environmental Information Plaza and the Energy Conservation and Environmental Cooperation Information Center, where Chinese and Japanese researchers can exchange data on energy-conserving technologies.

While setting a positive atmosphere at the summit level, Wen and Fukuda also paid attention to the importance of strengthening the bilateral relationship at the grass-roots levels to build a China-Japan relationship that is stable and future-oriented. To enhance “mutual understanding and mutual trust,” the leaders agreed on the following: fostering exchanges in the area of national security such as mutual visits by young PLA and Self-Defense Forces officers, as well as youth and intellectual exchanges; establishing a direct chartered flight between Beijing and Haneda; signing of the consular treaty; and establishing a consular office in Tsingtao. The two leaders agreed on “China-Japan friendly communications between young people,” setting 2008 as the year that begins annual exchange visits of 4,000 Chinese and Japanese youth that will continue for the next four years [4].

The two leaders also exchanged views related to the last pillar, “contributions to international society,” including Taiwan, North Korea, Pakistan and U.N. reform. While it is difficult to avoid reactions on statements regarding Taiwan given the complexity of the issue, Fukuda’s thoughts were not news—Fukuda confirmed that Japan’s stance on Taiwan is as stated in Article 3 of the 1972 PRC-Japan Joint Communiqué [5]. Japan’s policy, in other words, has been to oppose any unilateral attempt to change the status quo by either side of the Strait. This status quo is maintained as long as Taiwan does not seek de jure independence and the PRC does not use any force or other coercive means to achieve unilateral reunification. Fukuda stated that he does not wish to see tensions rise between the two sides of the Strait as a result of Taiwan’s referendum seeking U.N. membership, and that he would not support the referendum if it results in unilateral change in the status quo (Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), December 28, 2007).

Measure of Progress

While news reports describe the current bilateral relationship as a “warming” and “deepening” one, the same historical and territorial issues that haunted the relationship during the Koizumi era remain unresolved even after Fukuda’s visit, including the East China Sea dispute, although Fukuda and Wen released four new statements demonstrating their will to resolve the issue and make East China Sea the “sea of peace, cooperation, and friendship” [6].

Mutual mistrust rooted in history and important differences in fundamental political values remain between China and Japan to this day. Conversations with Japanese opinion leaders reveal that some Japanese are suspicious that China is unwilling to accept Japan’s apologies for the past or that it is seeking hegemony in Asia and to be on par with the United States. China’s lack of transparency in military spending, food security problem, and incidents such as one that happened a couple of weeks before Fukuda’s visit—Japan had to confront China for releasing a unilaterally rewritten Chinese-language version of a joint communiqué from the Japan-China high-level economic dialogue—also provoke further mistrust. It is for this reason that the U.S.-Japan alliance is vital to Japan in fostering its relationship with China.

While neither Fukuda’s visit nor his premiership substantially changes the nature of the China-Japan relationship, the image of the bilateral relationship has improved significantly as both sides reach out to each other. In addition, Fukuda’s visit is a success in terms of Japan’s relationship with the United States. With its hands full with other issues in the world, it helps the United States to be able to count on Japan—its trusted ally in the Asia-Pacific region—to maintain regional stability. At the same time, Japan has made sure that the U.S.-Japan alliance serves as the foundation for any Japanese efforts to further its relations with China.

Fukuda’s visit laid the groundwork to realize President Hu’s visit to Japan in April. The plan is to keep the momentum forward into 2008—which is also the thirtieth anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries—and beyond.


1. Prime Minister Fukuda said that spring is coming again to the bilateral relationship during his Peking University speech. In his meeting with Prime Minister Fukuda, Premier Wen Jiabao said that the bilateral relations had entered a “spring season.”

2. For example, see the comments by Kurt Campbell at a trilateral symposium in June 2006

3. The communiqué can be found in Japanese at:

4. The document can be found in Japanese at

5. Article 3 states: “The Government of the PRC reiterates that Taiwan is an inalienable part of the territory of the PRC. The Government of Japan fully understands and respects this stand of the Government of the PRC, and it firmly maintains its stand under Article 8 of the Potsdam Proclamation.” Article 8 of the 1945 Potsdam Proclamation authorizes implementation of the 1943 Cairo Declaration that “all territories Japan has stolen from Chinese, such as Manchuria, Formosa [Taiwan], and the Pescadores, shall be restored to the Republic of China.”

6. The document listing these four statements can be found at: