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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:32 03/09/2007
Debate: Commentary (October 20, 2003)

Only Koizumi cannot go to China

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM)

At the recent Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) summit in Bali, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi once again ignored a golden opportunity to mend fences with China. Instead of grasping a carefully outstretched Chinese hand, Koizumi made it crystal-clear that he intends to pursue his cavalier "annoy thy neighbor" policy. The continuation of this strategy will almost certainly lead to a short-term deterioration in Sino-Japanese relations and may even damage long-term economic ties. For Koizumi, these tactics will probably make Beijing upgrade his current persona non grata status to that of a permanent pariah.

Despite the present political friction, business and trade between the two neighbors is booming and China is now Japan's second-largest trading partner. However, on the level of mutual understanding, Sino-Japanese bonds have recently been forging extremely rough seas. In China, issues relating to wartime chemical weapons abandon by Japan have reignited strong anti-Japanese sentiment. This has been further inflamed by recent allegations of a mass orgy incited by Japanese businessmen there on holiday.

In Japan, the horrific killing of an entire Japanese family by Chinese students has heightened negative feelings about the country's growing Chinese community, which is sometimes unfairly stereotyped as consisting primarily of gangsters and prostitutes. Such a troubling backdrop should have motivated Koizumi to adopt a conciliatory posture with China, instead he chose a confrontational one.

At the ASEAN conference, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao took the initiative by tactfully reaffirming the importance Beijing attaches to forging what it terms "a good atmosphere between the two nations." He also offered Koizumi the prospect of eventually visiting China at "an appropriate time." In other words, if Koizumi halts provocative actions that inflame Chinese public opinion, it might be possible for the Chinese leadership to improve ties with Tokyo and perhaps invite him to the Middle Kingdom.

Yet Koizumi's failure to set foot on Chinese soil since a brief visit in October 2001 dramatically illustrates how top-level ties have withered under his administration. Koizumi's embarrassing predicament looked particularly exposed during 2003, a year which marked the 25th anniversary of a peace treaty between Japan and China. During the year just about every major Japanese political figure, save the premier himself, was wined and dined in Beijing. Even the leader of the main opposition Democratic Party of Japan, Naoto Kan, received the red carpet treatment when he became the first Japanese politician to meet with China's new president, Hu Jintao. Koizumi has only briefly met Hu on the sidelines of international gatherings.

At the heart of all Koizumi's China woes lies his highly publicized pilgrimages to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where fourteen high-ranking war criminals are enshrined along with the nation's war dead. Beijing takes the view that paying homage at a shrine that is strongly connected with Japan's wartime regime reflects how its current leaders truly interpret the country's past aggression against China. For ordinary Chinese people, the Yasukuni Shrine is a powerful symbol of Japan's militaristic era.

Koizumi has visited Yasukuni every year since taking office in April 2001, igniting Chinese outrage on all three occasions. This year four Cabinet ministers also made high-profile trips. Koizumi's initial 2001 outing was the first by a serving Japanese PM since Yasuhiro Nakasone did so back in 1985. Opinion surveys show that most Japanese do not approve of their prime minister's yearly jaunt to Yasukuni and realize they offend China. This makes Koizumi's undiplomatic actions even more difficult to justify.

Recently, the Chinese Foreign Minister, Li Zhaoxing, publicly reminded Koizumi that as Japan's leader, he must consider the feelings of the Chinese people before visiting the controversial shrine. The Chinese Ambassador to Tokyo, Wu Dawei, has been more forthright simply demanding to know "Why does Mr. Koizumi continue to worship at the Yasukuni Shrine, where Class-A war criminals are enshrined?"

The day after Premier Wen's politely worded overture, Koizumi told reports at the ASEAN conference that he still intends to pay homage at the shrine every year. As in the past, he defied logic and justified his actions by saying, "Visiting Yasukuni is simply natural, and it can't possibly harm Sino-Japanese relations."

In an attempt to overcome the impasse created by the shrine, a government advisory panel was set up to examine the subject. In December 2002, it recommended building a new secular memorial to the war dead, but strong opposition from conservative politicians and the Japan Association for the Families of the War Dead have practically buried the idea. Some ultra-rightwing groups have also launched a campaign to block any future attempt to build a separate memorial to honor the war dead. These developments do not bode well for a successful resolution of the issue. It seems likely that the Yasukuni Shrine will firmly remain a source of bilateral tension for some years to come.

In various writings, the late US President Richard Nixon acknowledged that many years spent accumulating strong anti-Communist credentials enabled him to make an historic visit to Chairman Mao Zedong's China. Koizumi's actions strongly indicate that he is attempting to craft a mirror-image version of this approach in which his impeccable track-record for offending Chinese public opinion forever excludes him from the country.

According to the popular American science fiction series Star Trek, in the far flung future "only Nixon could go to China" will become a well-known interstellar proverb. If Japan is unlucky, its current leader may provide the genesis for its antithesis: "Only Koizumi could not go to China." If Koizumi ever attains proverbial immortality, it will be achieved at an immensely high cost for his country.

In reality, the only concrete result that can possibly come out of Koizumi's current antagonistic China policy is long-term, and totally unnecessary, damage to Sino-Japanese relations. Unless Koizumi sees the light, it will take years to undo the damage his premiership has caused.

(Copyright 2003 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 16 October 2003,, and is republished with permission.)

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