No optimism is warranted on Japan-China relations: experts

September 04, 2015

The second Japan-China summit this April, followed by the June basic agreement on the details of the long-pending "maritime communication mechanism" for preventing unnecessary military clashes, would seem to suggest a willingness on the part of Tokyo and Beijing to mend their relationship.

In response to the changing situation, The Genron NPO invited three noted China watchers - Shingo Ito, head of the China Unit, Research Department - China, Mizuho Research Institute Inc., Shin Kawashima, a professor at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, and Yuji Miyamoto, former ambassador to China and currently chairman of Miyamoto Institute of Asian Research - to participate in a discussion on Aug. 18 to analyze the current developments in bilateral relations.

During the discussion moderated by Yasushi Kudo, president of The Genron NPO, Ito, Kawashima and Miyamoto shared the identical view that the relationship between Japan and China remains unstable, though both governments are desperately seeking to improve their ties.

While noting that the new developments in bilateral relations do not warrant optimism, the three experts agreed that both governments should pursue collaboration instead of confrontation in managing the relationship.

As to the factors for the recent changes in the relationship, the three participants in the discussion were of the opinion that they derived from moves in China's domestic situation.

Specifically, Miyamoto noted China's realization that it would be difficult to maintain a good economic relationship with Japan if the two countries were at loggerheads over non-economic issues, and said, "Things have finally started moving between the two governments officially, as Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has expressed his desire to talk with China without any conditions."

Kawashima noted that Chinese President Xi Jinping can now afford to think about mending fences with Japan, as he has solidified his power base by purging his major rivals. "President Xi has to amend his country's relations with Japan, before people's dissatisfaction erupts," he said.

Ito stated that China has been taking excessive reflationary measures since the 2008 "Lehman shock," resulting in a critically volatile state of investment and debt. "The Chinese government needs to create a stable environment regarding (external) relations, so as to avoid a sudden turnaround toward an economic slowdown," he said.

China suppresses criticism of Abe's statement

Miyamoto remarked on China's restraint from overtly criticizing the contents of the landmark statement by Prime Minister Abe, which was released Aug. 14 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

"President Xi told a Japanese delegation in May that China would never tolerate the denial and distortion of historical facts. But he did not identify what would amount to denial and distortion, leaving room for interpretation on the part of Japan," he said. "In this context, the Abe statement was able to avoid China's censure," Miyamoto added.

Agreeing with Miyamoto's view, Kawashima stated: "I was worried that the Chinese government might have to eventually stiffen its attitude toward Japan, should the Chinese public be deeply offended by the Abe statement. But that didn't happen even on the Internet, despite criticism from the media. The Japanese Embassy in Beijing was also wise to release a carefully translated Chinese version of the statement," he said. Ito added that it is important how the statement is followed up. "The next step is how we put Abe's words into action," he said.

Citizen-level discussions should lead the way

In terms of the future of the Japan-China relationship, Miyamoto acknowledged that since 2012, the security issue has become a major pillar in the structure of Japan-China relations, noting that the situation would remain complex with economic matters intertwined with security affairs. He further commented that the Japan-China relationship from now on will become similar to Japan-U.S. relations in terms of the management of bilateral relations.

"President Xi's planned visit to the United States in September must be watched closely. It remains to be seen to what extent the U.S. will tolerate China's moves to solidify what it has done in the South China Sea," he said.

He added that throughout history, no country has ever realized its ambition solely on the strength of military power. "If such should be the case, Japan should convey to China the clear message that we have many other areas than military ones in which to cooperate with each other," Miyamoto said.

Kawashima pointed out that Japan should not be perceived by the international community as the instigator of hostility toward China. "We place priority on peace and should make sure that the rest of the world knows that Japan wishes to establish a peaceful relationship with China," he stressed.

Commenting on the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank scheme, Ito stated that the promotion of a broader-region free-trade agreement or economic partnership agreement plan that includes Japan and China is preferable as a means to rectify the imbalanced interdependent relationship between China and its neighbors.

As for non-governmental diplomacy, Miyamoto expressed his high expectations of the role of the non-governmental sector in spearheading moves to improve bilateral relations ahead of government.

"In 2013, The Genron NPO and its Chinese partners jointly issued the 'No-War Pledge' when public opinion in both countries turned alarmingly hostile toward each other," he recalled. "It is important that the non-governmental sector takes the lead, ahead of government, in seeking solutions," Miyamoto added.

Ito, meanwhile, noted that the healthy growth of the Chinese economy is also indispensable for Japan, and stated, "Japan should support China as it works to overcome various issues by sharing Japan's accumulated knowledge, including the lessons it learned from the collapse of the bubble economy."

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