China’s Renewed Summit Diplomacy with Japan

Publication: China Brief Volume: 6 Issue: 21

The five-year hiatus in Sino-Japanese summit-level relations ended earlier this month as Beijing rolled out its red carpet to receive Japan’s new Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. Eager to renew relations between the two countries, Beijing welcomed Abe with a 21-gun salute and unfettered access to its top leaders. Abe, hoping to restore Japan’s strained ties with China, made Beijing—rather than Washington, Japan’s traditional ally—the destination of his first foreign visit as prime minister. Both sides discussed a range of issues and jointly warned North Korea not to go ahead with its nuclear test, just a day before Pyongyang carried it out.

An Unlikely Candidate

At first glance, Abe seems to be an unlikely candidate with whom Beijing would like to reestablish summit-level relations. Abe was former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s handpicked successor and is a well-known conservative with hawkish views on foreign policy and history-related issues. Much like Koizumi, Abe came from a political family that is well entrenched in Japanese politics. His grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, served as the prime minister of Japan in the late 1950s, and his great uncle, Eisaku Satō, was elected to the same position a decade later. For several years, Abe served as a secretary to his father who at the time was the foreign minister. After his father passed away, Abe successfully ran for his father’s seat in parliament in 1993, though he did not assume a cabinet position until he was appointed as chief cabinet secretary by Koizumi last year. Despite Abe’s relatively limited political experience, he was an active advocate of adding more “patriotic contents” to Japan’s history textbooks and reducing critical views of Japan’s past aggressions against its neighbors [1]. During his inaugural speech to the Japanese Diet, he called for revisions to Japan’s constitution and for a strengthening of Japan’s military (Yomiuri Shimbun, September 29). He has also refused to use the term “war criminal” to label those who were convicted by the Tokyo war crimes tribunal after World War II (Mainichi Shimbun, October 6).

Yet Beijing has obviously concluded that Abe is someone with whom it can work to renew relations. As it became apparent that Abe would succeed Koizumi as prime minister, the Chinese newspapers and media networks, normally very critical of Japanese conservatives, carried reports and analyses that placed a positive spin on Abe’s shifting and softening positions (China Daily, September 20; Asahi Shimbun, October 7). They pointed out that Abe has openly acknowledged the pains that Japan had inflicted on other countries in the past, agreeing that Japanese military leaders, including his grandfather, should bear the responsibility of Japan’s war against its neighbors. Most importantly, the papers noted, Abe backed down from his earlier position that he would visit the Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister, and he instead spoke of the importance of Japan’s relations with China and South Korea and his desire to repair damaged relations.

Top Chinese leaders seem to have reached a consensus that China should respond positively to Abe’s extended olive branch. The fact that South Korea had also reached out to Abe and was arranging for a summit with President Roh Moo-hyun provided further impetus for Beijing to act even more quickly. Once Zhongnanhai had decided on a positive engagement strategy with Abe, it became necessary for Beijing’s prestige that the new Japanese prime minister’s first overseas trip be a symbolic one to China. The Chinese had a formal welcoming ceremony for Abe at Tiananmen Square; President Hu Jintao, Premier Wen Jiabao and the Standing Committee of the People’s Congress Chairman Wu Bangguo—China’s three top ranking officials—all met with Abe for the one-day visit, even though an important plenary of the Chinese Communist Party was underway.

Yasukuni: Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell

The summit is particularly significant considering that China had suspended formal summits with Japan for the last five years due to Koizumi’s insistence on worshipping at the Yasukuni Shrine. Therefore, the question remains whether such a fast-track diplomatic breakthrough required compromise by either or both of the parties, especially on the Yasukuni issue. President Hu had clearly stated that Beijing’s bottom line for a summit with the Japanese prime minister is that he would not visit Yasukuni (Kyodo, April 1). Determined not to repeat the experience from its communications with Koizumi in 2001 (when several ambiguous interpretations were given) China stated its position in unequivocal terms: Beijing will not accept both Abe’s visits to Yasukuni as well as a resumption of summits.

Abe has his own domestic concerns not to visit Yasukuni. Although he scored well in his first foreign policy initiative, he still needs to tread carefully on the Yasukuni issue. The right wing of the Liberal Democratic Party still wants him to visit the shrine, and the pressure to “not back down” in dealing with China is intense. Furthermore, the Japanese public is split on the issue (Asahi Shimbun, July 25). So, in response to repeated questioning from the press and in parliament, Abe has refused to give a clear answer on whether he would go to Yasukuni in the future, only saying that it is a “political and diplomatic question.” He then told the Chinese side during the summit that he would handle the issue “appropriately” (Asahi Shimbun, October 9). In return, Chinese leaders did not press the matter further, indicating that they are willing to provide Abe with an opportunity to resolve the matter personally. More pressure from Beijing may be counter-productive, given the complicated dynamics of the Yasukuni issue in Japan’s domestic politics.

For the moment, the two sides seem to have settled for a compromise based on a “don’t ask and don’t tell” formula, allowing both to save face. Both Beijing and Tokyo claim that they did not back down: Beijing announced that “the political obstacle in Sino-Japanese relations has been removed,” while the Abe camp stated that the prime minister did not make promises one way or the other on the issue of the shrine. For the Chinese, they hope that Abe may choose to follow former Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone rather than Koizumi in handling the controversy over Yasukuni. Nakasone, who was conservative, nationalistic, pro-American and an advocate of a strong Japan on the international stage, went to the shrine on August 15, 1985 when he was prime minister. Yet, he chose not to visit the shrine again in order to pursue better relations with China, and is now urging Abe to follow his footsteps [2]. Abe hopes that the issue will somehow go away with time or that he will at least be able to wait until later to make a decision. With close to 60 percent of Japanese against a future visit by Abe, he may refrain from going to Yasukuni by not citing Chinese protest but rather domestic opposition (Kyodo, October 11).

A Reciprocal Relationship?

The contents of the bilateral summit read like a list of goodwill. Both parties emphasized the positives: continuing the summit at the APEC meeting later in the year; inviting Hu or Wen to visit Japan in 2007; promoting additional cooperation in various fields such as the environment; seeking the joint-development of energy resources in the disputed East China Sea; and conducting joint-research on history. Both Hu and Abe also expressed deep concern over the pending North Korean nuclear test (Asahi Shimbun, October 9).

The very fact that the summit took place was already a plus both to Beijing and Tokyo, as were the multiple-point suggestions for furthering bilateral relations offered by both sides. Nevertheless, the most significant development in terms of new ideas during the summit was Abe’s proposal that Japan and China should “establish a reciprocal relationship based on mutual strategic interests” (Asahi Shimbun, October 9). In his book, Toward a Beautiful Country, published earlier in the year, Abe suggested a formula of “separating politics from economics,” in managing Japan’s relations with China. He now states, however, that the bilateral relations must move forward with two wheels—politics and economics—simultaneously (Asahi Shimbun, October 8). In explaining his proposal of the reciprocal relationship based on strategic interests, Abe stressed environmental cooperation as the central theme of such a strategic approach: Japan will help China to meet its environmental challenge, which will in turn benefit Japan.

There is no doubt that many issues could potentially derail Sino-Japanese relations such as the dispute over the East China Sea, the issue of Taiwan, the North Korean nuclear crisis, Japan’s potential strengthening of its military, and, of course, Yasukuni or history related controversies. For now, however, Beijing and Tokyo have entered a new round of the “normalization process” after five years of interruptions. It will require both the strength and skills of the leaders in both capitals to make the process work.


1. For additional details of Abe’s past remarks on such subjects, see: