Kudo's Blog;Forum aimed at forging strong Japan-China relations via private-sector diplomatic efforts

October 15, 2011

By Yasushi Kudo, Genron NPO Representative

The Tokyo-Beijing Forum, launched just after the Japan-China relationship worsened in April 2005, was aimed at forging strong relations between the two neighboring countries so that they can have a quarrel in the best sense of the word. When the annual private-sector workshop was inaugurated, we willingly conveyed this aim to the Chinese. We believed that mutual trust cannot be deepened between Japan and China through ceremonious dialogues without serious discussions even if they are held frequently.


The seventh meeting of the workshop was held in Beijing for three days from Aug. 20, exactly at a time when executives of the ruling Democratic Party of Japan were busy mending an intraparty rift over selecting the successor to outgoing Prime Minister Naoto Kan, who doubled as leader of the party. The DPJ eventually elected Yoshihiko Noda as its leader in late August, paving the way for him to be inaugurated as the new prime minister Sept. 2. This was the third change in the head of government in only two years since the DPJ came to power in September 2009.

The Tokyo-Beijing Forum is jointly organized by Genron NPO, our independent, non-profit Japanese think tank, and the publisher of the China Daily, one of China's "Big Four" media organizations. The bilateral dialogue is co-sponsored by executive committees established on both sides by opinion leaders from the two countries. The Japanese executive committee is chaired by former United Nations Undersecretary General Yasushi Akashi.

Prior to the latest workshop, we, at Genron NPO, announced the results of an annual opinion survey about the attitudes of the two countries' peoples toward each other at a news conference. The survey revealed that the feelings of the Japanese and Chinese peoples toward each other greatly worsened again following Japan's seizure of a Chinese fishing boat in waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands in September last year and China's dissatisfaction with the Japanese government's handling of the nuclear plant accident triggered by the devastating March 11 earthquake in northeastern Japan.

Anti-Japanese demonstrations occurred in China over the dispute involving the Chinese fishing boat. The situation was similar to that in 2005. The latest dialogue was aimed at getting at the cause for the worsening of the opinions of the two peoples toward each other.

7th Tokyo-Beijing Forum

About 110 panelists got together without pay for the latest meeting, about 50 participants from Japan and 60 from China, among them experts from a variety of sectors, business leaders and government officials. Attending from Japan were Shigeru Ishiba, then chairman of the Policy Research Council of the Liberal Democratic Party, Minister of State for Government Revitalization Renho, who was then an assistant to the prime minister, Kyoto Prefecture Gov. Keiji Yamada, Bank of Japan Deputy Gov. Hirohide Yamaguchi and Japan Association of Corporate Executives (Keizai Doyukai) Chairman Yasuchika Hasegawa.

Japanese participants also included senior journalists representing major media companies. Panelists on the Chinese side included two Cabinet ministers ? State Councillor Tang Jia Xuan and Wang Chen, director of the State Council Information Office. Other speakers from the Chinese side were Cabinet-level officials, entrepreneurs and media people.

Their discussions were joined by a total of about 2,000 ordinary participants, including students. These people took part in workshops covering five specific areas ? security, media, politics, economic issues and local problems. Most of the discussions were broadcast on the Internet across China.

The good turnout at the latest meeting illustrated the magnitude of the problems that exist between Japan and China; to cite a few, the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands, and various concerns following China's strong economic development and its military buildup. Each of these problems contributes to worsening the opinions of the two countries' peoples toward each other.

Significance of private-sector dialogue

Can private-sector dialogue provide a clue to finding answers to these problems? Many participants appeared to be aware of such a challenge for the forum.

At the workshop on security issues, China's aircraft carrier building project was taken up during heated discussions on the transparency of China's military policy. Many Chinese participants called for independence in Japan's diplomatic policy, which they fear leans too heavily on its security alliance with the United States.

At the workshop on media-related problems, a Chinese journalist criticized reports carried by some Chinese media companies that the Senkaku incident occurred because a Japanese patrol boat had deliberately collided with the Chinese fishing boat. Japan's response to the earthquake that rocked northeastern Japan in March and an accident on a bullet train line in China in July also came up for discussion. Many Chinese journalists supported Japanese participants' view that working for the peoples' best interests should be the primary motivation of the media.

I strongly believe that this private-sector dialogue between Japan and China provides an important opportunity to think about the roles that the government and private sector of Japan must play. I had always believed that diplomatic policy was an area that must be dealt with by government. But I have come to believe there are many things that can be done in the diplomatic field by private-sector bodies and that certain problems can be better addressed by the private sector.

This is because I have seen antagonism emerge between the two countries' peoples whenever diplomatic incidents occur. I must say here I am not a Sinologist. Genron NPO, our non-profit organization, is not designed, either, to promote friendship programs with China and other Asian countries. But we did move toward creating a forum for dialogue with other countries across national boundaries, specifically in the form of private-sector dialogue between Japan and China. This is based on the strong sense of crisis that I felt when the diplomatic incidents occurred between the two countries.

The anti-Japanese demonstrations that spread across China seven years ago were triggered by the visit of then Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Tokyo's war-related Yasukuni Shrine. The demonstrations were reported in Japanese news programs every day. This helped fan nationalistic anti-Chinese sentiment among Japanese people. Government-to-government diplomatic consultations virtually came to a halt as a planned prime minister-level meeting was suspended. Media reports only fueled the mutual animosity among the Japanese and Chinese peoples. As a result, many programs for interchange between the two countries had to be postponed because of the worsening of intergovernmental relations.

Hostile nationalistic feelings

At that time, I thought that if mutually hostile nationalistic feelings continued to spread and if the situation between the two countries became uncontrollable, no one would be able to resolve the situation. Should people move when governments cannot take action? What I then tried to create was a forum in which serious discussions could be held on a private-sector basis regardless of the course of intergovernmental relations and the discussions could be conveyed broadly to the peoples of the two countries.

Supported by many people, I visited various organizations in China before launching this private-sector dialogue. We had discussions with the Chinese many times, but it was difficult to make progress. Eventually, we inaugurated the dialogue in Beijing in summer 2005, a few months after the anti-Japanese demonstrations.

When we started this dialogue, we exchanged some promises with the Chinese. The dialogue is aimed at deepening mutual understanding between the Japanese and Chinese peoples. Participants must have serious discussions and their discussions must be open to the public as much as possible. In order to reflect the views of the two countries' peoples in discussions at the dialogue, the two sides shall hold joint opinion surveys. It was also agreed to continue the dialogue for at least 10 years.

The launch of the dialogue not only resulted from my personal efforts to persuade the Chinese to create a venue for private-sector consultations between the two countries, but it also reflected Chinese leaders' hopes of finding a way to repair the relationship with Japan. With a lapse of seven years since then, leaders' meetings have been resumed between Japan and China. Official exchanges of visits have become so active that Chinese Premier Wen Jia Bao has visited areas hit by the killer earthquake in the Tohoku region of northeastern Japan to see how people there are doing. As the Chinese economy is continuing to grow, economic relations between Japan and China have become inseparable.

Many kinds of private-sector exchange programs are going on between the two countries. Our dialogue with the Chinese is also becoming larger and larger. The Tokyo-Beijing Forum is seen on the Chinese side as a channel that exists between government-to-government diplomatic talks and private-sector interchange. This represents what we call "second-track dialogue" for diplomatic relations between Japan and China.

Japan-China relations are improving on the surface, but there are things that have become clearer through our opinion surveys and dialogues. Relations between the two countries are worse than seven years ago at the time of the anti-Japanese demonstrations. Our dialogue as a private-sector diplomatic channel has also come to an important junction.

Deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations

The deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations appears to have been in progress from two aspects. First, China overtook Japan in terms of the aggregate amount of gross domestic product and has been steadily solidifying its status as a superpower, although the distortions of its rapid economic growth, such as widening economic disparities, are being brought to the fore. China's military expansion and its self-centered behavior on the high seas are beginning to pose a threat to its neighboring countries.

On the other hand, Japan has witnessed six changes of head of government in the past seven years. During that period, Japan's diplomacy vis-a-vis Asia has turned increasingly invisible and is inclined to rival China by finding shelter in the structure of the United States-led balance of power. Little progress has been made for the materialization of the "Japan-China strategic partnership of mutual benefit," which both governments once agreed to build. In such circumstances, the row over the disputed Senkaku Islands broke out and the nationalistic tendencies of the peoples of the two superpowers are strengthening over their territorial dispute.

Second, the Japanese people are uneasy about the emergence of China as a superpower and are beginning to turn hostile toward China. An opinion poll, which was conducted by Genron NPO last July, showed that about 80 percent of the Japanese have a negative impression of China and some 50 percent view Japan-China relations "in bad shape."

The outcomes of our opinion surveys about the attitudes of the two countries' peoples toward each other over the past seven years show that mutual understanding hinges on a fragile structure. For instance, close to 40 percent of

Chinese people believe that today's Japan is still a militarist state, although the rate of those with such a perception has been declining. The distorted mutual understanding is ascribed to the fact that many depend on domestic media reports as sources of information to build their image of each other's country.

So long as such a structure prevails, exchanges of both countries' peoples must be promoted as a top-priority task. At the same time, it is an undeniable reality that the deeper our understanding of each other becomes, the stronger our uneasiness vis-a-vis each other becomes. Sentiment of this kind might be common for many Japanese who are dealing with China and its people in the business world.

Higher-dimension exchanges

In other words, we are confronting a new challenge, that is, we must pursue a path toward coexistence by accepting our differences. The significance of our private-sector dialogue, if any, is the materialization of exchanges of such a higher dimension.

I firmly believe that governmental diplomacy and private-sector dialogue, namely, private diplomacy, are as inseparable as a pair of wheels. At a time when the Japanese government is beginning to lose the trust of the world in diplomatic fields, it is the time for us, the private, or civilian, sector, to promote dialogue, which is aimed at looking at the future in a cool-headed manner and overcoming the pending challenges.

If governmental diplomacy is aimed only at vying for the maximization of national interests out of consideration to the balance of power, we would end up drawing the future of Asia characterized by rivalry and confrontation among states. Instead, the future of Asia needs strong relations between private sectors and citizens. It is my belief that stronger private-sector exchanges could lead to the discovery of Asia's new values and the possibility of coexistence. Admittedly, it may take a considerably long time to realize this, but we must persistently make efforts to that end for the cause of Asia's future.