Ice Charades: Japan and China Skate Around the Obstacles

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 9

China’s and Japan’s diplomats can never be criticized for failing to come up with a variety of buzzwords to describe the evolution of their countries’ bilateral relations: “hot economics, cold politics,” moving from a “comprehensive policy dialogue” to a “strategic dialogue,” and building a “mutually beneficial strategic relationship.” So, it should be no surprise that much of the reportage on Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao’s April 11-13 trip to Tokyo focused on his declaration that the focus would be on “ice melting,” on the heels of Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s “ice breaking” visit to Beijing in October 2006.

Yet, in the context of Japan and China’s perennially troubled relationship, “ice melting” means very little. The two sides have only begun to move beyond the glacial disputes that prevented high-level diplomatic exchanges in recent years. These efforts to restart the relationship, however, reveal several major trends in bilateral ties, as the two sides try to come to terms with recent diplomatic and political developments that have left China holding the stronger hand in East Asia.

Magnanimous in Victory?

Perhaps the most important trend in contemporary bilateral Sino-Japanese relations is that after a period in which China prominently criticized Japan’s military resurgence, resisted Tokyo’s efforts to inject the “abductee” issue into the six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program and criticized Japan for failing to appropriately deal with the nation’s wartime history of aggression against China, Beijing has made significant strides on each of these issues. Emboldened by recent accomplishments, Wen’s trip was primarily designed to consolidate gains in these fields while minimizing potential repercussions in Tokyo.

The February 13 six-party agreement on initial actions regarding North Korea’s nuclear program was perhaps the greatest of China’s accomplishments in recent months, and one that simultaneously propelled Beijing to a new height as an “honest broker” in East Asia, while undercutting Tokyo’s diplomatic and security posture in the region. Under the agreement, the six parties have placed ever-greater reliance on Pyongyang’s willingness to voluntarily dismantle its nuclear weapons program in exchange for energy and humanitarian aid, without immediately addressing such questions as North Korea’s highly-enriched uranium program or extant atomic weapons. These terms meet Beijing’s goal of preserving Pyongyang as an internationally subsidized buffer against American power on the Korean Peninsula, but leave Japan squared off against a hostile regime that recently tested ballistic missiles capable of striking Tokyo.

While Japan may be frustrated by having to accept Pyongyang’s terms for the prolongation of the six-party talks, it has been placed in an especially difficult position by the February 13 agreement’s relegation of the abductee issue to a bilateral working group, the success or failure of which will have no bearing on other portions of the talks. This issue, which concerns more than a dozen Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korean intelligence in the 1970s and 1980s, has captivated the Japanese public and assumed primacy in Japan’s policy toward Pyongyang. Abe has pledged that Japan will not provide energy assistance to North Korea unless its concerns regarding the abductee problem are resolved; but this hard-line position leaves Tokyo alone at the talks. Japan has bet all of its leverage on resolving a single issue, marginalizing it at the broader six-party negotiations on the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula.

In contrast, Premier Wen demonstrated Beijing’s confidence in the six-party talks during his meeting with Abe, where they adopted a joint statement calling on the six parties to fully implement the February 13 agreement. In this statement, Beijing expressed its “understanding and sympathy” toward Japan’s concerns on the abductee issue and indicated that it “would like to provide the necessary cooperation” to help promote Japanese-North Korean relations (“China-Japan Joint Press Statement,” April 11, 2006). Immediately after the statement was released, however, a high-ranking Chinese diplomat emphasized that Beijing believes “the abduction issue is supposed to be a matter to be resolved bilaterally,” implying that the ball remains solely in Tokyo’s court (Daily Yomiuri, April 13).

Thus, no matter how much Japan hopes for a Chinese contribution toward the resolution of the abductee issue, Tokyo appears to be abandoned in resolving this topic. And so long as the issue remains unresolved, Japan will remain a relatively ineffectual actor at future iterations of the six-party talks, an outcome that places its security and diplomacy in jeopardy, and one that the Wen-Abe meeting did little to address.

Whistling Past the History Issue

Perhaps the most important development of Premier Wen’s visit to Tokyo is that he has continued to stamp out the nationalistic fires that singed bilateral relations in the five years of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s tenure. During that period, Beijing refused to hold summit level meetings in protest against Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which commemorates Japan’s war dead. This chill was deep enough that Wen’s visit is the first by a Chinese premier in almost seven years.

As official Sino-Japanese ties stagnated, a range of incidents—anti-Japanese riots in August 2004 and April 2005, the publishing of a revisionist Japanese junior high school text book and repeated incursions by Chinese “research ships” and a submarine into Japan’s territorial waters—all presented new hazards for a relationship without leadership. Incoming Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing in October 2006 and pledge to deal with the Yasukuni matter in an “appropriate” (albeit cleverly unspecified) manner broke through the ice that had trapped Sino-Japanese relations, presenting a modest victory for China and allowing both sides to back down from a mutually harmful spat over a symbolic question.

Nevertheless, the joint effort to sideline the history issue has not addressed fundamental differences or underlying tensions on the matter. For example, although the dispute over Yasukuni has focused on the fourteen “Class A” war criminals enshrined there, the heart of the matter cuts straight to the nearly 2.5 million Japanese soldiers who died between the1894-1895 Sino-Japanese War and the close of the Pacific war in 1945. The Chinese public considers any veneration of these soldiers as honoring the instruments of criminal aggression. As Premier Wen explained to a group of reporters before visiting Tokyo, “both countries experienced a half-century of misery when Japanese militarists launched a war of aggression against China” (People’s Daily, April 17). No mainstream history textbook in Japan would ascribe to Wen’s description of a continuous, five-decade long militarist plot—a basic difference in views that guarantees that Yasukuni will remain one of many problems well into the future.

Moreover, while the Chinese seethe at a view of history that most Japanese cannot imagine, many in Japan see the more recent outbursts of violence against Japanese nationals and property in China as a greater problem. In a think tank article assessing Premier Wen’s visit, the Japan Forum on International Relations’ Kenichi Ito observes that “the scars left by the violent anti-Japanese demonstrations across China two years ago remain,” and that the Japanese public finds it “difficult to maintain normal, friendly relations with a country…whose government does not apologize for, compensate for and punish the destructive behavior of demonstrators” (Association of Japanese Institute of Strategic Studies, April 23). It seems that each side may acknowledge the importance of historical offences and disputes without the foci ever converging.

But perhaps the greatest risk underlying these very divergent views of history is the fact that the Chinese government both spins-up and spins-down nationalist sentiment, generally manipulating the truth to promote its immediate political ends. After the torrent of anti-Japanese propaganda that accompanied the April 2005 riots, for example, Beijing has struggled to prevent anger over Prime Minister Abe’s recent comments on the “comfort women” question from derailing Wen’s trip.

Since Abe suggested in early March that Japan’s military did not coerce comfort women during the Pacific War, the Chinese press and officials have continuously worked to deflate the story. One remarkable outcome of this effort was the stark contrast between the China Daily’s March 26 headline, “Abe Apologizes for WW2 Sex Slaves,” and the New York Times’ treatment of the same speech: “Japan Again Denies Role in Sex Slavery.” Indicating that the Chinese public may have limited patience for manipulated media, online comments on a China Daily article titled “Abe Apologizes for Wartime Sex Slavery” pointed out: “Abe didn’t reverse himself. The only ones reporting this ‘reversal’ are Chinese newspapers” (China Daily, March 13). As this popular mistrust of China’s state-controlled media accumulates, the incentives for China’s citizenry to take national pride into their own hands and protest both the Communist Party and Japan grow as well.

In short, the history issue continues to lurk behind the façade of improved Sino-Japanese ties. And while the leadership in Zhongnanhai has grown accustomed to both mobilizing and curtailing anti-Japanese sentiment, the proliferation of media outlets that lie beyond the state’s immediate control promises to make this an increasingly unwieldy tool. If China and Japan do not resolve some of their longstanding disputes soon, they may indeed propel the two counties in the direction of an escalating confrontation, edged on by the anti-Japanese sentiment that Beijing has so long fostered.

Dangerous Undercurrents

While the Wen-Abe meeting was partially intending to maximize the perception of positive developments in bilateral relations, it is also necessary for Beijing to minimize the downside risk of blowback as Japan may reevaluate its diplomatic strategy in response to recent setbacks and growing perceived threats in the region.

If the February 13 agreement on North Korea represents Beijing’s most recent triumph, it is also its greatest risk vis-à-vis Tokyo. Japan has long pointed to the threat posed by North Korea’s missile and nuclear weapons programs as a justification for upgrading its missile defense capabilities and alliance with the United States. If Japan’s nuclear “debate” following the October 2006 North Korean nuclear test can be treated as symptomatic of declining confidence in the U.S. security guarantee, then China may fear the possibility of an increasingly remilitarized and eventually nuclear-armed Japan. Maintaining Japan’s simultaneous commitment to and marginalization within the six-party talks may be an optimal goal, but is also a difficult one to sustain.

The history issue is also an increasingly thorny one for Beijing. In addition to unwieldy nationalist sentiment at home, China also has to deal with Japanese leaders who may increasingly respond to falling approval rates by sounding off nationalist rhetoric, as Abe has in part done on the comfort women question. As convenient as it is for Beijing to have anti-Japanese crusades at the times of its choosing, they are inconvenient when they arise unexpectedly.

Territorial disputes in the East China Sea pose a final area where the bilateral relationship threatens to spin out of control. Simultaneously observing and raising tensions on the issue, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party’s official mouthpiece, has previously warned: “If the Japanese government is bent on having its own way, and insists on exploiting oil and natural gas in China’s exclusive economic zone, then it is not impossible for the outbreak of skirmishes” (People’s Daily, July 27, 2005). Although both Japanese and Chinese diplomats have attempted to minimize the severity of the disagreement over the East China Sea for the purposes of the Wen visit, no breakthrough was announced beyond acknowledging that future consultations on the topic may be conducted at a higher level as appropriate in an effort to make the contested maritime region a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship.”

This all brings Tokyo and Beijing back to a point that no amount of positive talk and diplomatic jargon can dispel: the two sides have very different views on a wide range of topics that are of vital importance. Managing these differences will require tremendous effort and some confidence that each can compromise without being taken advantage of for narrow domestic political reasons by the other. Wen’s trip to Tokyo may indeed be the first move toward the “ice melting” around these issues, but each side has yet a long distance to go.