Less than a week prior to the 8.0-magnitude earthquake in China’s Sichuan Province on May 12, Chinese President Hu Jintao was in Japan for his first state visit as agreed to during Japanese Prime Minister Yasuko Fukuda’s visit to China last December (China Brief, January 4). Hu’s five-day visit from May 6 to May 10 was the first by a Chinese president to Japan since 1998, and also his longest trip to a single foreign country since he was selected to serve as president in 2003 (AFP, May 5).
Only days after the earthquake, Beijing decided on May 15 to accept the Japanese government’s offer to send the Japan Disaster Relief Team—which includes firefighters, Japan Coast Guard personnel and Foreign Ministry officials—to conduct search-and-rescue operations in the affected areas . Japan was the first country that China allowed to enter after the earthquake struck. While Japan has the needed experience and skill to deal with natural disasters, some Western media highlighted this decision as a potential sign of China’s intention to improve its relations with Japan (New York Times, May 16). Beijing’s decision could have been a more difficult one to make if the earthquake had happened earlier—such as 2001-2006—when the relationship was said to be at its worst since 1989.
While these events indicate a positive change in the political will and leadership to appear friendly, compared to the first half of this decade, the bilateral relationship still remains fragile at a fundamental level. Although the current state indicates the two countries’ desire to maintain a good relationship for the sake of their mutual interests, it does not signal mutual trust and therefore does not guarantee a continuum in the bilateral relationship.
Hu Jintao completed an extensive itinerary in Japan that was meant to signal a continuum of the two countries’ desire to improve their political relations, as well as their economic, cultural/historical and people-to-people ties. In Tokyo, Hu held meetings not only with Prime Minister Fukuda, but also with parliament chiefs and political party leaders, including the opposition Democratic Party Japan (DPJ) Chairman Ichiro Ozawa. Former prime ministers also gathered to meet Hu at a breakfast meeting, including Yasuhiro Nakasone, Toshiki Kaifu, Yoshihiro Mori and Shinzo Abe—Juniichiro Koizumi, whose annual visit to the controversial Yasukuni shrine for the war dead caused China to cut off all high-level dialogues during his premiership, did not attend, thus avoiding any friction (The Australian, May 5). Hu was also forthcoming when he met with the Japanese emperor and empress and discussed China’s offer to lend Japan a pair of giant pandas—China’s cultural icon—named Lan Lan and Kang Kang, and played table tennis at Waseda University where he later gave a speech and attended the opening ceremony of the China-Japan Friendly Exchange Year of Youth in 2008.
Outside of Tokyo, Hu visited Yokohama and interacted with the local Chinese diaspora. In Osaka, he spoke with local business and government leaders about strengthening bilateral economic ties—the bilateral trade relationship has been especially strong with Japan’s western coast—particularly in the area of eco-business. He also visited Matsushita Electric Appliance Factory, one of the first foreign companies to invest in China about 30 years ago. In Nara, he visited the Buddhist temples Horyuji and Toshodaiji, the latter built by the Chinese monk Ganjin in 759.
Following the “warm spring” visit, Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi stated that President Hu’s visit has “opened up new prospects for the development of strategic and mutually beneficial relations between the two countries,” implying great success (People’s Daily Online, May 11).
Was It a Success?
The visit can be considered a success by various measures, in terms of its attempt to portray a positive image of the bilateral relationship.
First, given the tense political relationship of 2001-2006, the fact that this state visit happened—albeit with a delay—is itself a success. During the first half of this decade, top-level official visits halted due to former Prime Minister Koizumi’s aforementioned contentious visit to the Yasukuni Shrine.
Moreover, the visit occurred despite disruptions caused by several incidents since Fukuda’s visit to China in December 2007 that had strained the political relationship and public opinion on both sides. Earlier this year, the two sides became caught in a dispute over the origins of pesticide-tainted dumplings exported from China that caused 10 Japanese consumers to fall ill. Later, the Japanese people witnessed the unrest in Tibet and the worldwide condemnation of the Olympic torch relay. These obstacles produced anxiety in proponents of a warmer Chinese-Japanese relationship that the incidents combined could derail the positive momentum created with Prime Minister Fukuda’s visit to China last year. Indeed, one cannot ignore the demonstrations President Hu faced during his visit over the Tibetan issue: during Hu’s dinner with Fukuda, about 4,200 people gathered in protest (AFP, May 6); more than 100 students and protestors gathered on campus while Hu gave a speech on the campus of Waseda University (The Japan Times, May 9); and in Tokyo and elsewhere, security was tightened to guard against any turmoil (Asahi Shimbun, May 9). The fact that discussions at the official level remained friendly during his stay—despite the conflict over the tainted dumplings and the Tibetan protests—demonstrates how strong the political consideration is on both sides to save face and improve bilateral ties.
The visit also stands as a success in stark contrast to former President Jiang Zemin’s visit in 1998. The visit, which followed the Japanese emperor’s first visit to China in 1992 on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of the normalization of Sino-Japan relations, was highlighted as the first-ever state visit made by the president of China. Japan expected it to become a cornerstone for both sides to establish a new Japan-China relationship of cooperation. Instead, the former president chose to lecture Japan for its wartime atrocities during his visit, both in front of the emperor and at a speech that was also given at Waseda University (Reuters, May 4). Jiang’s emphasis on wartime history has been regarded as indicating China’s increasing need to reverse the rapidly declining domestic support for the Communist Party following the Tiananmen Incident, and to reflect any anti-government sentiments toward Japan (Japan Times, June 26, 2006). The Joint Statement of 1998 referred to former Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama’s statement in 1995 in which he expressed his “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” regarding Japan’s wartime aggression, and indicated the need for Japan to continue to demonstrate its remorse and repeat its apologies .
In contrast, the new China-Japan Joint Statement, the fourth one since the two sides signed a Joint Communiqué on September 29, 1972, was much more forward-looking. On the history issue, the two sides resolved to “face history squarely, advance toward the future, and endeavor with persistence to create a new era of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.” Moreover, while deciding to maintain their previous respective positions on issues including Taiwan, the two sides clearly recognized in this statement that it is the two countries’ “sole” option to cooperate, and that they are “not threats to each other.” President Hu’s speech at Waseda University, in contrast to his predecessor, also made a point that China’s reason for remembering the past is not to continue enmity but to use history as a mirror and face the future and maintain peace (Asahi Shimbun, May 9). Some Japanese press regard this new approach to the history issue as China’s intention to break from the past and enter into a new phase in its bilateral relationship with Japan (Asahi Shimbun, May 11).
Another salient indication of progress is the agreement to delineate the East China Sea. While it is not clear which specific areas in the East China Sea would be subject to joint development of gas fields, Fukuda and Hu announced that the two sides agreed to reach an early decision after working out the details (Asahi Shimbun, May 8). This development could be the most significant outcome of the visit if the two sides indeed reach an agreement.
In addition to moving forward with the history and territorial issues that halted the strengthening of the bilateral relationship earlier in the decade, the two sides agreed in their joint statement to enhance their mutual efforts on the following: 1) fostering mutual trust in the political and security arena (i.e. conduct periodic, high-level exchange of visits and develop greater understanding of universal values accepted by the international community); 2) promoting of people-to-people and cultural/intellectual exchanges; 3) enhancing “mutually beneficial cooperation” in a variety of areas but with particular priority on energy and the environment; 4) contributing to the Asia-Pacific region (i.e. normalization of Japan-DPRK relations, promotion of the Six-Party process, the promotion of an open, transparent and inclusive East Asia region); 5) participating actively in global issues (i.e. climate change, energy security, environmental protection, poverty, contagious diseases, etc.).
Are They Sincere?
While the visit was successful in terms of portraying a positive image of the relationship, it is not yet clear how sincere both sides are with regard to remaining as friendly as they appeared to be during Hu’s visit. The two sides certainly have a reason to be sincerely interested in maintaining a good relationship given their mutual interests, some of which are short-term and some of which are long-term.
There are speculations that short-term incentives necessitate both sides to appear friendly on the surface. Both China and Japan need each other’s cooperation as hosts of the 2008 Summer Olympics and the July 2008 G8 Hokkaido Toyako Summit, respectively. Prime Minister Fukuda’s declining support at home—which dipped to a record low of 20 percent this month—also raised speculation that the Fukuda Cabinet is attempting to score points on the diplomatic front to offset dwindling popularity at home. Fukuda’s support at home has been particularly affected by his decision to revive the higher gas tax rate and the ruling coalition’s move to override the Upper House counter to abolish it (Asahi Shimbun, May 3).
There are long-term incentives, however. For one, both sides have strong economic incentives to remain friendly. China is Japan’s top trading partner, Japan is China’s third-top trading partner, and bilateral trade totals approximately $237 billion (Reuters, May 4). For China, regional stability is vital to its economic growth, and the maintenance of a positive relationship with Japan is critical to that end. While China is a growing economic force in the global economy, Japan still remains the largest economic power in the region with a $4.3 trillion economy (2006), almost twice that of China (Reuters, May 4). As Hu admittedly stated during his speech at Waseda University, China is still “the world’s largest developing country” that is struggling with grave structural problems and needs stable relations with Japan and other nations to ensure its peaceful development (Xinhua News Agency, May 8).
Japan also needs to maintain good relations with its neighbors, including China, to improve its international standing. In particular, Japan needs China’s support to join the U.N. Security Council and to resolve the North Korea issue without undermining the effort to solve the issue of North Korea’s past kidnapping of Japanese citizens. Moreover, to lead in energy conservation and environmental protection, Japan must assist the world’s largest greenhouse gas-emitting country, China. To help curb China’s carbon dioxide emissions, the two sides agreed during President Hu’s visit to collaborate in a project involving cutting-edge “Carbon Dioxide Capture and Storage” technology (CCS), which will involve utilizing carbon dioxide captured at coal thermal power plants in China to reduce the viscosity of the oil field and ease the process of extracting oil (Asahi Shimbun, May 6).
However, the recent series of events do not serve as evidence of a positive “trend” or continuum in bilateral relations—mutual distrust still exists and a sharply divided public opinion held in the two countries remains. The anti-Japan educational system instituted in the 1990s under Jiang has produced a generation of Chinese youth with anti-Japan sentiments who could be mobilized to demonstrate against Japan again should the Beijing leadership allow it as it did in 2005 (Sankei Shimbun, April 20, 2005).
Moreover, from Japanese perspectives, the memories of the 2005 protests will not disappear overnight (Reuters, May 9). Here lies all the more reason that the current emphasis in both Beijing and Tokyo to strengthen the people-to-people relationship is important, as present efforts could help generate the affinity that is lacking and could last in the long-term if planted now. Despite these deep-rooted uncertainties, symbolic gestures at the top do have significant impact on people of the two sides. Given the importance of a stable bilateral relationship for both countries and the region, the top leaders of the two countries should be signaling a positive tone at their level to reinforce these developments into a trend.
Implications for the U.S.-Japan alliance
Another question that emerges in the context of improved China-Japan relations is the implication for the United States and U.S.-Japan relations. With regards to concerns that perhaps China’s rapprochement with Japan is an attempt to draw a wedge between Washington and Tokyo, it is important to note that Japan’s approach toward China is based on the Fukuda administration’s vision to maintain “synergy between the U.S.-Japan alliance and Asia diplomacy.” Prime Minister Fukuda has maintained that the U.S.-Japan alliance will remain the lynchpin of Japan’s foreign policy and that a strong relationship with Washington will serve as the basis for Japan’s active diplomacy vis-à-vis Asia, particularly China and South Korea—for instance, President Hu’s visit followed South Korean President Lee Myung Bak’s visit in mid-April, which also concluded on a positive note. Moreover, Fukuda’s friendlier approach to China unburdens the United States from any concern of regional instability caused by Sino-Japan tensions, as it did during Prime Minister Koizumi’s premiership.
Moreover, as mentioned above, China’s president is aware of the country’s need to maintain good relations with its neighbors and other countries for its development. Perhaps cognizant of claims that China is a power that strives to change the status quo—unlike the United States and Japan which strive to maintain the status quo—Hu Jintao also made a point to state during his Waseda University speech that China “will never fight for hegemony for good, nor try to expand (its territory)” (Asahi Shimbun, May 17).
Last, but not least, as explained above, distrust toward China still remains in Japan due not only to recent incidents, but also from the anti-Japan sentiments demonstrated by the Chinese earlier in this decade. It is important to emphasize the fundamental difference between the two countries—Japan is an open democracy and China remains ruled by the Chinese Communist Party. The Cold War was fought for the values that Japan embraces and flourishes under—the lack of shared values between the two countries should not be overlooked in light of growing economic ties.
1. Japan later withdrew the relief teams after determining that the possibility of discovering survivors has become extremely low, and sent a group of medical teams instead (Japan Today, May 19, 2008).
2. The Joint Statement reads: “Japanese side is keenly conscious of the responsibility for the serious distress and damage that Japan caused to the Chinese people through its aggression against China during a certain period in the past and expressed deep remorse for this. The Chinese side hopes that the Japanese side will learn lessons from the history and adhere to the path of peace and development. Based on this, both sides will develop long-standing relations of friendship.”