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Commentary (November 25, 2004)

Hu warns Koizumi against going to Yasukuni

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

After an acrimonious political year since they last met briefly, Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi recently got together for an hour after the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum (APEC) summit in Chile. Their late evening talk focused on three main areas of Sino-Japanese friction, Koizumi's controversial visits to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a dispute over China's gas exploitation projects in the East China Sea (the maritime territorial border is in dispute), and the recent incursion of a Chinese submarine into Japanese territorial waters. Hu said the shrine visits were not acceptable and personally appealed to Koizumi to stop his annual pilgrimages.

Although superficially little progress appeared to have been made, and neither side yielded ground, a deeper analysis reveals that economics rather than politics is still the driving force in bilateral ties between the two countries. Both sides emphasized the importance of improved economic ties and regional stability.

While the two leaders did not actually change their positions or concede any ground, according to their spokespersons, official media and sources, they did finally lay the foundations for a possible reconciliation by publicly acknowledging their political relationship has serious problems, identifying one of its root causes: Koizumi's visit to the shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including Class-A war criminals. The two leaders met for the first time a year ago, in October 2003, at the APEC summit in Bangkok.

The frank exchange has already sparked a lively debate in Japan, and will cheer Japanese business leaders who are concerned that vital economic ties with the Middle Kingdom may be jeopardized by deteriorating political dialogue. China's voracious appetite for imports has largely fueled Japan's nascent economic recovery. The business community has been demanding that Koizumi try to smooth relations with China, which imported a staggering 3.8 trillion yen (US$36.7 billion) from Japan in the first six months of 2004.

Despite booming economic ties, the political relationship between the two top leaders can be likened to that of an unfortunate couple in an ancient Chinese legend: the unlucky pair were only allowed to meet briefly once a year. At their first meeting in Bangkok, not much was accomplished in the pro-forma session. Koizumi is persona non grata in China, primarily because of his regular shrine visits, which he has refused to give up. He told Hu this time that his controversial visits were in fact an anti-war pledge.

Hu and Koizumi's close encounter
Having met almost every other APEC leader, President Hu finally penciled in a little time after the forum ended for his short annual audience with the leader of one of China's most important economic partners. Having been strongly criticized at home for the abysmal state of Sino-Japanese ties under his premiership, Koizumi was desperate to speak to the Chinese leader this year, and readily agreed to rush over to his hotel for a quick mini-summit.

Shaking hands for the cameras, the two men sported unconvincing smiles. Koizumi attempted a little jovial banter, but there was no disguising the definite lack of genuine friendliness in the atmosphere, especially compared with Hu's earlier and clearly friendly flesh pressing with other APEC leaders.

Immediately after the photo-opportunity session ended, the leaders sat down facing each other across a conference table, flanked by neat rows of advisers. Unlike last year's less formal armchair discussion, on this occasion there was a distinctively more business-like air.

Hu warns Koizumi against going to Yasukuni
President Hu, who also is head of the Chinese Communist Party and the military, quickly dispensed with the normal diplomatic niceties, and for the first time ever told Koizumi directly that his repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine are the issue that most seriously damages Sino-Japanese ties.

Beijing and many of Japan's Asian neighbors view the prime minister's regular trips to Yasukuni, which is so strongly identified with Japan's brutal wartime regime, as totally inappropriate, insensitive and deeply offensive. The Shinto shrine honors the country's war-dead but is also dedicated to 14 Class-A war criminals, including wartime leader General Hideki Tojo. Critics have likened Koizumi's Yasukuni pilgrimages to a German leader visiting a Hitler memorial or a Palestinian leader praying at a shrine for suicide bombers; Yasukuni also is strongly linked with Japan's wartime suicide kamikaze pilots.

Hu simply told Koizumi, "The crux of the problem is that Japanese government leaders pay homage at the Yasukuni Shrine." Hu explained that the Yasukuni issue has become the major political obstacle in Sino-Japanese relations, and that both countries should strive to develop bonds that respect all aspects of their mutual history.

The Chinese president also asked Koizumi to specifically avoid going to Yasukuni next year, as it will be a symbolically significant 60 years since the end of World War II. Hu said, "You can't ignore history. In particular, next year is a sensitive year that marks the 60th anniversary of the victory by anti-fascists." Hu added that if Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine in 2005, it would deeply offend Chinese people. He cautioned Koizumi, "I would like you to take appropriate action."

Since taking office in April 2001, Koizumi has paid annual homage at the shrine, making his first foray in August 2001. Beijing has repeatedly said that such excursions must stop, since the shrine is considered a symbol of Japan's wartime militarism and the visits are highly offensive to the Chinese people, stirring up memories of past Japanese atrocities. Beijing also interprets top-level visits as proof that Tokyo is not genuinely repentant for the immense suffering it inflicted on the Chinese people.

In response to Hu's remarks, Koizumi seemed to acknowledge the need to recognize the countries' painful mutual past. "It is important to give consideration to history," he said, but rejected Hu's criticism of his shrine pilgrimages. He reiterated his long-standing position that the shrine visits should not be interpreted as any form of tribute to Japanese war criminals, but rather should be seen as an expression of a Japanese tradition that honors all its war-dead equally. Furthermore, his pilgrimages should be considered as the prime minister's way of making a pledge that Japan will never again wage a war of aggression. He told Hu, "I visit there in order to honor those who lost their lives against their will."

Highlighting Yasukuni a positive sign? While the two leaders failed to bridge the gap on Yasukuni, they did reaffirm the importance of developing good bilateral relations. More significantly, by making the issue so prominent, Hu has ensured that it will now be properly debated in Japan, increasing the chances for a satisfactory resolution. By issuing, in effect, an ultimatum, Hu also gave Koizumi three options:

Incur the wrath of China by continuing to go to the shrine;
Suspend the forays until leaving office;
Undertake the building of a controversy-free secular shrine in accordance with the recommendations of a government panel that investigated the matter.

Hu has raised the stakes considerably by personally requesting that Koizumi not go next year. If he does, it could completely rupture Sino-Japanese relations, some analysts say. With such a sword of Damocles hanging over China ties, the business community is certain to put pressure on Koizumi to restrain himself for the sake of good Sino-Japanese economic links.

However, the old debate about Japan's right to honor its war dead in the way it sees most appropriate and without any outside interference, will definitely resurface. Some conservative commentators also argue that expanding Chinese military might means Koizumi cannot afford to back down over Yasukuni because it would leave Japan looking weak.

Hu mum on maritime dispute and sub incursion
The two leaders also discussed other contentious issues, such as the dispute over the exploitation of gas fields in the East China Sea in areas claimed by both countries and the recent intrusion into Japanese territorial waters of a Chinese submarine. After stonewalling for days, China finally acknowledged the sub, said it strayed by accident and expressed some form of regret, enabling Japan to interpret that as the apology it had demanded.

China is currently engaged in gas and oil exploitation projects in the East China Sea, and since October 2003 has been drilling in a region about 400 kilometers northwest of Okinawa Island. The test sites, operated by China's biggest offshore oil and gas producer, CNOOC Ltd, lie just a few kilometers from the boundary line that Tokyo designates as separating the two countries' Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZ), but that Beijing does not officially recognize.

Mindful of their territorial disputes, Koizumi urged President Hu to exercise prudence in its development of seabed resources. He said, "It's important not to make the East China Sea a venue for conflicts." Although Hu declined to directly respond to Koizumi's request, the two leaders did agree to try to resolve the issue through mutual dialogue, according to sources close to the meeting.

Referring to the recent intrusion by a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine into Japanese territorial waters, Koizumi asked Hu to ensure China takes preventive measures to avoid a recurrence of such incidents. Again, Hu declined to make a direct response, instead replying, "Outstanding issues should be considered from a broader viewpoint." On other issues such as Taiwan policy, the two sides were in general agreement. China is adamant that Taiwan is part of China and Japan, which had colonized Taiwan and maintains close links, does not want to see a conflict in or around the Taiwan Strait.

Economics still more important than politics
This year's fleeting annual rendezvous at a regional conference graphically illustrates that while economic ties between the two neighbors are shooting through the stratosphere, political ties are still just hovering above the ground, and might even be sinking. However, the fact that the two leaders actually met and exchanged frank views will be viewed by many in the business world as a fairly positive sign.

Furthermore, Koizumi reaffirmed his view that development of the Chinese economy does not pose a threat but offers great opportunities for Japan. Hu was equally upbeat on economic ties. According to Chinese sources, he explained his hope that both countries would continue to promote good bilateral cooperation, ensuring regional stability.

In the final analysis, economics, not politics, is the driving force in Sino-Japanese relations.

Copyright 2004 Asia Times Online Ltd. This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 23 November 2004,, and is republished with permission.

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications