Confluence of Considerations: Sino-Japanese Relations from Beijing’s Perspective

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 9

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo during the tenure of former Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi were marked by increasingly dichotomous trends. Economic relations between the two countries witnessed spectacular growth during the period, with the Japanese economy becoming more and more dependent on the Chinese market. Political relations between Tokyo and Beijing, however, took a precipitous turn primarily due to Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorates Japan’s war dead, including 14 World War II class-A war criminals.

Repairing Relations with China

Eventually, the deteriorating bilateral political relations took a toll on the economic relationship between the two countries. While overall trade increased, both Japan’s exports and imports grew at slower pace in 2005, 8.9 percent and 15.7 percent, respectively, down from 29.0 percent and 25.3 percent in 2004 [1].

Japanese companies that maintained investments in China faced an unfavorable management environment due to the increasing anti-Japanese sentiments among the Chinese citizenry. The poor relations between the two countries also affected the ability of Japanese firms to obtain contracts on the many large-scale construction projects in China, such as the Three Gorges Dam, the express railway between Beijing and Shanghai and the nuclear power plants that are now being constructed. As a result of the negative impact that Koizumi’s visits to Yasukuni had upon the economic relationship, many Japanese business leaders as well as trade associations demanded that both Koizumi and especially the incoming prime minister halt visits to the shrine and begin repairing relations with China.

The concern stemming from the business communities also spilled over into the public arena, with Japan’s top political leaders, including several former prime ministers, criticizing Koizumi’s visits. Even the conservative-leaning Yomiuri Shimbun and its owner Tsuneo Watanabe criticized Koizumi’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine (Yomiuri Shimbun, June 4, 2005). Of the five largest newspapers in Japan, only the Sankei Shimbun continues to support such visits.

The Japanese public likewise began to oppose the prime minister’s visits to Yasukuni. According to a public opinion poll conducted by the Asahi Shimbun on Koizumi’s August 15, 2006 visit to the shrine, 49 percent of the public supported his visit to the shrine on the anniversary commemorating the end of World War II, while 37 percent were opposed to his visit [2]. Yet, when asked whether the succeeding prime minister should continue these visits, only 31 percent of the respondents felt that he should continue the visits, while 47 percent of the public stated that the next prime minister should stop visiting the shrine.

When Abe became Prime Minister in September 2006, he faced a critical decision as to whether to reverse Koizumi’s practice of visiting to the Yasukuni Shrine. Unlike Koizumi, however, who enjoyed strong support within his party, the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), as well as with the public, Abe’s position as Prime Minister remains precarious. Aware that the security of his position is largely dependent upon the LDP’s strong showing at the Upper House elections in July 2007, he has chosen to adopt a safer route by supporting the thawing of relations with China, a policy that enjoys widespread support. Moreover, given that Abe has yet to reveal a domestic agenda capable of rallying public or party support, he remains relegated to consolidating his position based upon his foreign policy.

China’s Impetus for Thawing Relations

As Tokyo was determining how best to repair relations with China, Beijing was also searching for an opportunity to break the deadlock in bilateral relations that had lasted for over half a decade. Beijing was faced with the task of addressing the anti-Japanese sentiment of the Chinese public, while also emphasizing the importance of relations between China and Japan to its people. When the Japanese leadership transition occurred in September 2006, Beijing viewed the change as an opportunity to alter the course of Sino-Japanese relations and began discussing the possibility of welcoming the new prime minister to visit China.

Beijing’s calculus for restoring relations with Japan was primarily centered upon economic considerations. The Chinese leadership was aware that China’s continued economic development depended upon both Japanese investments as well as stable relations with the regional powers. China also sought to avoid any escalation of tension over the territorial disputes in the East China Sea and to encourage the process of regional cooperation with Japan.

Negotiating Considerations

When it became clear that Koizumi would be stepping down in the fall of 2006, Beijing began to explore the possibility of repairing relations under the next prime minister. Beijing’s precondition for any visiting Japanese prime minister, however, was that the Japanese leader agree to not visit the Yasukuni Shrine [3]. As it became certain that Abe would be replacing Koizumi, Chinese and Japanese officials initiated a series of strategic dialogues in late September 2006, the details of which are unknown, in order to “remove the political obstacle” and pave the way for Abe’s visit (China Daily, September 22, 2006). Abe likewise sought to repair relations with China and indicated, even before his election, that he hoped to visit China as his first trip abroad as prime minister. To ensure that his trip would be prefaced by optimism, days before his visit to Beijing, he also repeated former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s 1995 apology for Japan’s wartime aggressions in the past (Xinhua, October 7, 2006).

In addition to opening the door for subsequent visits between Chinese and Japanese leaders, Abe’s “ice-breaking” visit also had a “mind-changing effect” upon the opinions that the Chinese and Japanese publics had of one another. Moreover, Abe’s visit had a “negotiation promoting effect” in which the visit served to make subsequent bilateral dialogues and negotiations more promising, as evidenced by the China-Japan Joint Press Statement of October 8, 2006 [4].

Since then, additional meetings have been held between Abe and the Chinese leadership. Abe met with Chinese President Hu Jintao at the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Conference in Vietnam and with Prime Minister Wen during the Association of Southeast Asian Nations 10+3 trilateral leaders’ meeting in the Philippines (China Daily, November 18, 2006; Xinhua, January 15). It was at their meeting in the Philippines that Abe invited Wen to visit Japan.

Wen’s “Ice Melting” Visit

Prior to Wen’s visit to Japan, however, two challenges emerged that would shape the agenda of the discussions. In the months leading up to the meeting, Japan engaged in a series of unfriendly moves against China. During Abe’s visit to Europe in January, he actively lobbied the EU to maintain its arms embargo against China (EU Business, January 10). Abe also called for a strategic dialogue to take place among the “common value” countries in the Asia-Pacific—Japan, Australia, India and the United States—in order to develop a quadrilateral strategic “Common Value Alliance” (People’s Daily, April 21). Just one month prior, Japan signed a “Joint Declaration for Strategic Cooperation”—a move that served as a step toward realizing such a “Common Value Alliance” [5]. Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso advanced this notion by suggesting that an “Arc of Freedom and Prosperity” be formed in the Asia-Pacific, which Chinese strategists interpreted as rhetoric calling for the containment of China [6]. Compounding upon these events was Abe’s denial that the Japanese government ever coerced the “comfort women” during World War II (People’s Daily, March 16).

The other challenge was the difficulty of arriving at a compromise between Tokyo and Beijing over the joint statement prior to the meeting. Chinese negotiators sought to obtain concessions from Japan over the key issues of Yasukuni and Taiwan. Regarding the latter, Beijing wanted an unambiguous declaration from Tokyo stating that it does not support Taiwan’s independence nor would it ever intervene in the Taiwan Strait, regardless of the circumstances. Japanese negotiators, on the other hand, were concerned with making a breakthrough on the territorial disputes in the East China Sea as well as obtaining China’s support regarding Japan’s position in the abductee issue with North Korea. They also hoped that China would assist Japan in becoming a permanent member of the UN Security Council. Given the sensitive and contentious nature of these issues, the negotiations, despite having begun weeks before, were not finalized until right before the meeting between the two leaders.

In spite of these difficulties, Wen’s visit was a success on three important aspects. First, Wen’s visit paved the way for the regularization of mutual visits between Chinese and Japanese leaders. If all goes as planned, Abe is likely to visit China again within the year, and President Hu will also visit Japan in the near future. Second, Wen’s visit helped to improve Japanese public opinion on China. Speaking before the Japanese Diet, Wen’s carefully crafted speech accounted for the sentiments of both the Japanese and Chinese people and was interrupted 11 times by applause from the Diet members. During his 52-hour visit, Wen also attended 49 events, many of which involved meetings with the Japanese citizenry. Lastly, both sides were able to arrive at a consensus on establishing a framework for “Mutually Beneficial Relations Based on Common Strategic Interests,” which was published in the Japan-China Joint Press Statement [7].

A Long-Term Perspective on China-Japan Relations

If Abe is able to secure his position as prime minister following Japan’s Upper House elections in July and continues his hitherto policy on China, relations between Tokyo and Beijing are likely only to advance. Mutual exchanges in all fields would continue to increase as public opinion in each country further improves, with the overall relationship becoming warmer and warmer. Any reversal on Abe’s policy, however, including a visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, would almost certainly cause the current progress to grind to a halt.

In the 2,000 years of relations between China and Japan, the comprehensive national strength of each country relative to the other has tended to follow two models, “strong [country]-weak [country]” and “weak-strong.” At the turn of the century, however, bilateral relations have entered into a new “strong-strong” model. Given their status as great powers, both countries have the opportunity and capacity to cooperate with one another and achieve a win-win result. China is committed to improving and stabilizing its relations with Japan for both its own interests as well as those of the international community. Yet, unless Japan reciprocates China’s policies and actions, Chinese leaders will have limited room to make concessions with Japan.


1. “Japan’s Trade with China Sets Seventh Straight Record in 2005,” press release by Japan External Trade Organization, available online at:

2. Asahi Shimbun’s polling questions and figures are available online at:

3. It should be noted that while Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tactfully pledged to deal with the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in an “appropriate” manner, he did so without explicitly promising to stop all future visits.

4. Full text of the China-Japan Joint Press Statement of October 8, 2006 is available online at:

5. Full text of the Japan-Australia Joint Declaration on Security Cooperation available online at:

6. Full text of the speech is available online at:

7. Full text of Japan-China Joint Press Statement on April 11, 2007 available online at: