Sea-change in Japanese Politics Offers Hopes for Better Ties with China

Publication: China Brief Volume: 9 Issue: 18

Prime Minister-in-Waiting Yukio Hatoyama

Apart from breaking the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) 50-odd years of nearly uninterrupted dominance over Japanese politics, the ascendancy of the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) as the new ruling party in the landslide general election on August 30 could have a pivotal impact on the country’s relations with China. Ties between the two most powerful Asian nations are set to improve significantly, if only in terms of symbolism and atmospherics in the near term. Yet, deep-seated contradictions between the two giant neighbors rooted in centuries of rivalry, including Tokyo’s perception of the “China threat” phenomenon and its apparent participation in what Beijing deems a Washington-led “anti-China containment policy,” will likely pose challenges to relations for a considerable time to come.

First of all, the main faction of the DPJ led by Prime Minister-in-Waiting Yukio Hatoyama is expected to end the LDP’s single-minded dependence on the United States not only for nuclear deterrence but also overall stewardship in diplomatic and security issues. In articles in the Japanese and American media the past month, Hatoyama has played up the importance of “maintaining [Japan’s] political and economic independence … when caught between the U.S. which is fighting to retain its position as the world’s dominant power, and China, which is seeking ways to become dominant.” While Tokyo will certainly uphold its defense alliance with the United States, Japan’s next prime minister has reiterated the new ruling party’s emphasis on an equidistant approach and a “Japanese-American partnership between equals” (Xinhua News Agency, September 4; Bloomberg, August 27).

Equally significant, Hatoyama has underscored his country’s primacy as an Asian nation. The Stanford-educated former professor entertains great expectations about an “East Asian community” for economic progress. A great admirer of the spirit behind the European Union (EU), the 62-year-old scion of Japan’s prominent Hatoyama Clan supports closer ties among Asian economies, including a common Asian currency. He wrote in the New York Times that Asian countries “must spare no effort to build the permanent security frameworks essential to underpinning [regional currency integration] which … will likely take more than 10 years” to establish. Given that China overtook the United States as Japan’s biggest trading partner in 2007—and that the latter’s recovery from its worst recession since World War II is predicated upon increased exports to China—economic imperatives as much as political considerations underlie the DPJ’s “Asia first” mind-set (New York Times, August 27; China News Service, September 1).
DPJ honchos have lost no time in extending gestures of goodwill to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. For example, Hatoyama has indicated that he will not be visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, where a dozen-odd number of Japan’s “Class A” war criminals are being worshipped (China Daily, April 22; AFP, April 22). Former LDP Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual pilgrimage to the Yasukuni was one factor behind the drastic deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations in the early 2000s. While bilateral ties were substantially repaired when Shinzo Abe called on Beijing in October 2006—barely a week or so after succeeding Koizumi as prime minister—Abe never made a public declaration about shunning the controversial Shinto shrine to allay the party’s conservative base of support. In fact, Hatoyama is one of a handful of politicians from across the political spectrum to have proposed a special committee to investigate crimes committed by the Imperial Army ranging from recruiting “comfort women” to making bio-chemical weapons. It is also likely that a Hatoyama government will go ahead with building a religiously and politically neutral “alternative monument” to remember the war dead (China Youth Daily [Beijing], August 31; People’s Daily, August 12).

Moreover, the Hatoyama leadership has hinted that it will drop the so-called “values diplomacy” that was championed by LDP chieftains including former prime ministers Koizumi and Abe. The concept refers to the need for Japan to forge a partnership with Asia-Pacific countries such as the United States, Australia and India, which follow the standard Western democratic model. The “values diplomacy,” however, has been regarded by Beijing as yet another version of an “encirclement policy” against China. Instead, Hatoyama has revived the precept of “fraternity among nations”, first enunciated by his grandfather Ichiro Hatoyama, who was prime minister in the 1950s. This essentially means that Tokyo should extend the spirit of friendship and good neighborliness not only to allies such as the United States but also to countries with different ideologies such as Russia and even North Korea. In an interview with the domestic media, Katsuya Okada, DPJ Secretary-General and Foreign Minister-designate, indicated that his party would refrain from commenting on human rights and other sensitive issues regarding China. Referring to recent disturbances in the Tibet and Xinjiang Autonomous Regions in China, Okada noted that “these are purely China’s domestic issues and the DPJ would not intervene [in them]” (Xinhua News Agency, August 4; Global Times [Beijing] July 30).

Regarding flashpoints in Asia, especially territorial squabbles among countries including Japan and China over islets in the South China and East China Sea, Hatoyama thinks that the parties involved should focus on seeking joint economic advancements while shelving their differences. “The problems of increased militarization and territorial disputes cannot be resolved by bilateral negotiations,” he pointed out recently. “The more these problems are discussed bilaterally, the greater the risk that citizens’ emotions … will become inflamed and nationalism will be intensified.” Citing the EU as a model of “how regional integration can defuse territorial disputes,” Hatoyama argues that the fruits of economic synergy will persuade parties to sovereignty-related conflicts to opt for joint development by setting aside their disagreements (Christian Science Monitor, August 17; New York Times, August 27).

The CCP leadership has been quick to demonstrate good will toward the Hatoyama team. While meeting a Japanese business delegation earlier this week, Premier Wen Jiabao said Beijing appreciated the DPJ leadership’s “positive attitude” toward China. “We are willing to boost communication and cooperation with the new Japan cabinet, to increase mutual trust… and to continue and deepen the development of the Sino-Japanese strategic and mutually beneficial relationship,” Wen said (China News Service, September 9). Scholars who double as advisers to party and government organs have expressed cautious optimism over the new order in Tokyo. Liu Jiangyong, a top Japan expert at Tsinghua University, noted that while “problems and conflicts in China-Japan relations won’t disappear if the DPJ comes to power, its policies are overall quite positive for relations [with Beijing].” Zhang Boyu, a specialist on Sino-Japan relations at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences agreed. “While maintaining an alliance with the U.S., the DPJ’s foreign policy places more stress on Asia,” she said. “The prospects for its China policies are by and large relatively optimistic.” The day after the historic polls, the official Chinese newspaper International Herald Leader ran an article headlined “Hatoyama: Japan’s Obama,” which said Japanese voters were full of expectations for this Japanese version of the American president (Reuters, August 27; China News Service, August 28; International Herald Leader [Beijing], August 31).

It should be noted, however, that there are sizeable differences among DPJ factions over domestic as well as foreign policy. This reflects the fact that this erstwhile opposition party was formed in 1998 out of an amalgamation of disparate political elements, including former LDP parliamentarians. Major figures at the helm, including Hatoyama, Okada and former party chief Ichiro Ozawa, have had long experience dealing with China. Ozawa and Okada in particular have made trips to China almost annually for the past decade, during which they received VIP treatment from the CCP leadership. This stands in sharp contrast to the LDP, most of whose leaders, since the late 1990s, lack personal ties with movers and shakers in Beijing. Yet at the same time, there is a vocal wing of young Turks within the DPJ, which advocates hawkish foreign policy views not dissimilar to those of Koizumi, Abe and outgoing premier Taro Aso. For example, Seiji Maehara, who was briefly party leader four years ago, is an advocate of scrapping Article No. 9—the so-called “peace clause” —of the Japan Constitution, as well as a strong defense force to go along with an enhanced global role for the country (Xinhua News Agency, August 3; China News Service, August 29; China Youth Daily Online, August 31).

Also important for Beijing’s Japan-watchers is the DPJ administration’s stance toward the United States. It is significant that as Hatoyama and his colleagues are poised to govern, they have toned down earlier statements about Japan-U.S. links that have caused anxiety in Washington. In his post-election telephone conversation with Obama, Hatoyama said relations with the United States were the “foundation of Japan’s diplomacy” and that “we want to build constructive, future-oriented Japan-U.S. relations.” The DPJ policy manifestos of 2005 and 2007 favored cutting the number of U.S troops stationed on Japanese soil; revising the Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) that governs the political and legal status of these soldiers; and terminating anti-terrorism refueling operations by Japanese forces in the Indian Ocean. In the past month, however, the DPJ leadership has dropped strong hints that the new government would only seek changes regarding SOFA and American bases after establishing sufficient rapport with the Obama Administration. Hatoyama has also spoken enthusiastically about a Japan-U.S. Free Trade Agreement, something that even the LDP had not actively pursued (AFP, September 3; Mainichi Shimbun [Tokyo], August 3; [Washington], August 7; ABC News, August 30).

Over the longer term, Sino-Japanese ties could be determined by changes in how ordinary Japanese perceive the precipitous rise of China and the “China threat” theory. Except for the radical wing of the DPJ, Japan’s new ruling party has steered clear of reference to the “China threat” —and the need for the country to build up its defense forces and to boost cooperation with the United States as a hedge against a possibly expansionist China. It is significant, however, that conflicts between the two neighbors this year have been dominated by defense-and sovereignty-related matters. Beijing’s official media have spoken out against Tokyo’s plans to station a thousand-odd troops on Yonaguni Island, which is close to the disputed Senkaku (or Diaoyu) islets. Last month, the Chinese Foreign Ministry hotly countered Tokyo’s claim that the Okinotorishima, an outcropping in the Pacific Ocean some 1,740 meters southwest of Tokyo, is an “island”—and that Japan can therefore claim some 400,000 sq km of exclusive economic zone (EEZ) around it. Beijing has insisted that Okinotorishima is only a “reef,” which under international law, cannot be entitled to any EEZ. Professor of International Relations Liang Yunxiang of Peking University noted that contradictions between the two nations on sovereignty-related questions would not go away. “Tokyo will not give way on sovereignty issues, which are intertwined with national interests, irrespective of which party is holding power,” he said (Ming Pao [Hong Kong], August 31; China News Service, August 28; AFP, July 1).   

Whether the epoch-making triumph of the DPJ will prove to be a game-changer for Japan-China relations may be gauged by the following pointers: one is how soon Hatoyama and his key aides will visit China. Japanese newspapers have reported that the new Prime Minister may call on Beijing as early as next month (Yomiuri Shimbun, September 7; Ming Pao, September 8). Another is whether Beijing will dispatch Vice-President Xi Jinping—who will likely succeed Hu Jintao as party chief in 2012—on a tour of Japan as a symbolic gesture of the CCP’s commitment to bolstering good ties with Japan through the generations. Equally crucial are areas of financial and economic cooperation such as a “currency swap” mechanism for settling China-Japan trade in either renminbi or yen, but not the U.S. dollar. An even more important bellwether is whether both governments can summon enough political will to substantiate the theoretical accord reached in mid-2008 between President Hu and then-prime minister Yasuo Fukuda on the “joint development” of gas-fields under the East China Sea. For the agreement to be effective, a formal bilateral treaty has to be signed. Despite the Hu-Fukuda theoretical breakthrough, Tokyo and Beijing have recently engaged in new spats over the exploitation of gas fields in the contentious area (Reuters, August 27; Global Times, August 25). It seems obvious, then, that much more than calls for fraternity and good will are required to ensure that Sino-Japanese relations move forward on an even keel.