Yasuo Fukuda and the Future of the Sino-Japanese Relationship

Publication: China Brief Volume: 7 Issue: 19

The unexpected resignation of Shinzo Abe and election of Yasuo Fukuda as Japan’s prime minister has turned a page in Sino-Japanese relations. Unlike his predecessors Abe and Junichiro Koizumi, Fukuda does not have a hawkish reputation, and is indeed considered to be relatively friendly to China. The Chinese media was positive about Fukuda’s ascension, noting in particular that Fukuda’s father, Takeo, signed the December 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China, and his longstanding opposition to prime ministerial visits to the Yasukuni Shrine (People’s Daily, September 23).

The optimism that surrounded the Fukuda government was complemented by the prime minister’s first official measure toward Beijing, a September 29 message he sent to Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao celebrating thirty-five years of normal diplomatic relations. In his note, Fukuda promised premier Wen that he would maintain a policy of “strategically cooperative relations,” the term that the Abe government had coined to describe the future model for Sino-Japanese relations [1].

The two sides appear to have wasted no time in further pressing the bilateral relationship. Although Prime Minister Fukuda has indicated that he plans to visit Washington before Beijing, it appears his government is already leaking details about the latter trip. Fukuda is reportedly planning to make a trip to China in February, followed by a reciprocal visit by Chinese president Hu Jintao to Japan in April 2008 (Nikkei Shimbun, October 14). The latter trip is especially notable, and will be the first such exchange since Jiang Zemin met with Keizo Obuchi in 1998.

These positive developments, however, should not obscure the many significant challenges that remain for Sino-Japanese relations. Indeed, as Beijing attempts to work with Fukuda, it may gradually realize that the problem with Japan is not the deadlock created by such leaders as Koizumi, but the limits on progress that can be achieved even with a more cooperative partner in Tokyo. Likewise, while Fukuda may seek to improve bilateral relations with the People’s Republic of China, he will have difficulty surmounting a trio of obstacles in the relationship: the sheer difficulty of the bilateral agenda, the political constraints on each side, and the vulnerability of the relationship to surprises.

A Difficult Agenda

The essential obstacle to improved Sino-Japanese relations is the two country’s vast and largely disputatious agenda. After five years of mutual hostility in the Koizumi era, the “ice breaking” visit by Abe to Beijing in September 2006 and reciprocal “ice melting” visit by Wen to Tokyo in April 2007 set the relationship back on track, but did not resolve any significant issues. In many ways, the relationship was easier to manage in the Koizumi era, when the focus on the prime minister’s visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan’s war dead are memorialized along with fifteen Class A war criminals from the Second World War, meant the two countries ignored most substantive issues on the agenda.

The East China Sea is probably the most complicated element in that agenda today. Japan and China have competing claims to exclusive economic zones (EEZs) that overlap several major undersea gas fields. Tokyo claims the EEZs should meet at the midway line between the countries, while Beijing seeks an EEZ based upon its continental shelf. Under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea, both claims are legitimate bases for defining an EEZ and should be settled through negotiation. But the two countries have instead resorted to unilateral exploration, and Chinese warships have repeatedly intruded into waters claimed by Japan (Japan Defense White Paper, 2006).

The East China Sea question was a focus of Wen Jiabao’s April 2007 visit to Tokyo, and the two sides announced that they would make the area a “Sea of Peace, Cooperation, and Friendship,” but made little progress on the issue, instead calling for bilateral exchanges between their foreign ministries.

With Fukuda’s ascension, the Chinese government expects that he will take steps toward resolving the dispute over the gas fields (Asahi Shimbun, September 23), but the first set of director general-level talks since have revealed that neither side has yet budged on its basic position. The talks gave each an opportunity to reiterate their respective positions and common theoretical desire to achieve a solution to the dispute, but emerged no closer to that goal (Nikkei Shimbun, October 11). If Japan and China are going to break through the significant impasses they face on this type of substantive issue, the senior leadership on both sides will have to intervene.

The Surly Bonds of Politics

The obstacle to such senior intervention is a set of domestic political circumstances that will make it difficult for Fukuda to compromise. At home, Fukuda is on the defensive against the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), which in July took control of the Diet’s upper house and can now block the government’s legislation. Although the Democratic Party is not opposed to improved Sino-Japanese relations—its president will lead a party delegation to Beijing in December—it is looking for any opportunity to undermine Fukuda’s authority (AFP, September 18).

Given Tokyo’s divided government, most pundits expect that a snap election will be called for the lower house by April of next year, either confirming that the popular mandate has shifted to the DPJ or bolstering the LDP’s demands that the Democrats allow the legislative process to proceed unhindered. Until this election occurs, almost every public act in Japan will be a matter of parrying and feints as Fukuda and Ozawa attempt to develop any conceivable electoral advantage, precisely an environment that does not favor bold diplomatic steps.

While a preoccupation with the lead-up to elections will distract Fukuda from any major changes in China policy, so too does the nature of intra-party politics. Fukuda snatched a surprise victory in September’s race for the LDP presidency from the hawkish Taro Aso, whose supporters are looking for any sign of weak knees, especially on issues such as the Yasukuni Shrine. One Aso supporter directly attacked Fukuda for supporting a state-run facility to replace the shrine after the LDP’s presidential election (Yomiuri Shimbun, September 25), and former Abe adviser Hisahiko Okazaki has suggested that Fukuda should visit the shrine in order to demonstrate to China that any future prime minister may do so (Japan Times, October 12).

In an analogy to the U.S. experience, whereas Abe could play the role of Japan’s Nixon by making concessions as a conservative, Fukuda must be wary of his unguarded right flank. The nature of Fukuda’s weakness within the party has been demonstrated clearly in the context of the Six Party Talks, where he has indicated that he would like to shift away from the Abe government’s policy of refusing to support the most recent agreement until it receives closure on the “abductees” issue, concerning some twenty Japanese citizens who were kidnapped by North Korea in the 1970s and early 1980s, but cannot do so in light of LDP opposition (Yomirui Shimbun, September 26).

The Chinese government is aware of Fukuda’s domestic liabilities and appears to be avoiding any rash bets on his success as a prime minister. Major Chinese media observed upon his victory in the LDP presidential race that Japan would likely have a parliamentary election by April 2008 (People’s Daily, September 23). Indeed, reports that Hu Jintao is looking to visit Tokyo in April indicate that he may be hedging his bets in the event of a Japanese election, making sure that he does not show up at a time when parties on any side of the aisle may be looking to make political grist out of a visit, and when any Japanese government may be strong enough to engage in substantive negotiations.

But even after Tokyo gets its house together, the leadership in Beijing has its own reasons not to embrace any serious agreements with Japan for the immediate future. The history issue appears to leave Beijing once-burned, twice-shy. After Jiang visited Japan in 1998, he was accused of making significant concessions to Japan on the history issue without gaining Japanese support on his position. Hu does not want to find himself in a similar position, especially given the risk that Fukuda may be followed by a more hawkish leader, or that the relationship may be overtaken by other developments in the region.

A Taiwanese Surprise?

Perhaps the greatest, continual obstacle for the Sino-Japanese relationship under the Fukuda government is its perennial vulnerability to strategic surprise. Although Japan and China can sublimate their competing interests in Asia so long as there is no crisis to exacerbate them, each side is cautious of developing too close a relationship in the case of such an event. As Tokyo and Beijing look at the opportunities for developments on the Korean Peninsula and the Taiwan Strait, they are each aware of sharply divergent interests and the potential for sudden developments.

The Taiwan Strait has been a perpetual challenge for the two countries, but it appears especially precarious today. Since July 2007, Taiwan’s President Chen Shui-bian and his Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been pushing for a referendum seeking a national mandate to apply to the United Nations under the name of Taiwan, rather than the country’s constitutional title, the Republic of China. Beijing has responded to this effort by issuing private threats, mostly in Washington, to undertake “non-peaceful measures” under the Anti-Secession Law directed at Taipei. Since Taiwan’s officials have indicated that they would view such acts as grounds to undertake a “defensive referendum” directly addressing the question of independence, there is a real possibility of a tit-for-tat escalation toward conflict.

In private discussions, Japanese officials are relatively confidant that the Chinese threats are simply intended to coerce U.S. criticism of President Chen, likely in order to hurt the DPP’s prospects in upcoming legislative and presidential elections. To bolster this argument, they point to the fact that when such senior Chinese officials as Minister of National Defense Cao Gangchuan visited Japan this year, they did not emphasize their position on the Taiwan referendum, focusing instead on strictly bilateral affairs [2].

This confidence that the current cross-Strait spat will not explode, however, may be too optimistic. The Chinese government has a strong incentive to avoid alarming Japan, which following the 1995-96 Taiwan missile crisis declared its intentions to support the United States in the case of “situations in areas surrounding Japan.” More recently, the two sides adopted a 2005 joint statement identifying the peaceful settlement of issues concerning Taiwan as a common strategic goal. Beijing has, by its own lights, clear reasons to avoid inviting greater Japanese participation in the Taiwan question, and seeks to keep Tokyo out of the equation as much as possible.

This Damoclean risk simply drives home the point that while Japan and China have much to gain from developing a stronger political and economic relationship, both sides will remain wary of the other’s intentions and limitations. There is cause for cautious optimism in Sino-Japanese relations under the aegis of Yasuo Fukuda, but the first priority in each capital will remain to proceed with caution.


1. Prime Minister’s Office, “Message from Prime Minister Fukuda to Premier Wen,” September 9, 2007.

2. Author’s interviews with Japanese officials conducted in Tokyo on October 9-12, 2007.