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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:33 03/09/2007
Commentary (December 3, 2004)

Beijing Gives Koizumi a Double-Whammy

Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

For more than a year, Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi has been doggedly asking Beijing for a top-level summit meeting with either Chinese President Hu Jintao or Premier Wen Jiabao. Somewhat unexpectedly, within the past couple of weeks this request has been granted in full, resulting in separate audiences with both leaders. However, rather than helping to repair severely strained bilateral ties, both mini-summits have only served to underscore the extremely poor state of Sino-Japanese political relations. This issue is increasingly beginning to dominate Koizumi's domestic agenda, generating criticism of his dealings with the Middle Kingdom as well as whipping up Japanese nationalist sentiment.

The latest hour-long summit, with Chinese Premier Wen, took place on Tuesday on the sidelines of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) gathering in Vientiane, Laos. It followed an almost identical pattern to the earlier tense encounter with President Hu at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum in Chile a week ago.

While history is not meant to repeat itself, the rule does not appear to apply to Sino-Japanese summits as both meetings had identical agendas and outcomes. Beijing's objective behind the double-whammy appears to be to pile up the pressure on Koizumi over his handling of bilateral ties and ram home its displeasure to the Japanese public, which is deeply divided over the issue.

Following Hu's APEC lead, Wen forcefully reiterated Beijing's deep unhappiness with Koizumi's annual visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which Beijing says is the major obstacle to good Sino-Japanese political dialogue. The controversial Shinto shrine honors Japan's war dead, including several Class A war criminals, and is closely associated with the country's brutal wartime regime and with what some see as Japan's increasing militarism.

Koizumi softens Yasukuni stance
Since his first encounter with Hu, who urged him to end his shrine visits, Koizumi has been forced to soften his position on the shrine pilgrimages slightly. Instead of declaring he definitely will visit it each year, he has now moderated this to "I will make an appropriate judgment in the future." Beijing has interpreted this as progress, but it is far from clear whether Koizumi will yield to Beijing's demand.

In the latest head-to-head, both leaders again emphasized the importance of booming and vital bilateral economic ties, much to the relief of the business community in both countries. Trade between the two neighbors is currently growing at astronomical rates, so far remaining unaffected by the turbulent political waters.

Beijing seems to be calculating that by continuously highlighting the Yasukuni issue, Koizumi may be forced to moderate his stance because of building domestic demands for better relations with China, which Beijing says are dependant on ceasing the contentious shrine excursions.

As if reading from the same script as President Hu, Wen restated China's demand that the controversial pilgrimages cease because, according to Beijing, they lie at the core of current Sino-Japanese political tensions. As in the earlier rendezvous with Hu, Koizumi voiced understanding for Beijing's position, but declined to say whether he would continue to make an annual trip to the disputed shrine.

The exchanges also covered the same areas discussed at the Hu summit, including the recent Chinese submarine incursion into Japanese territorial waters and disputed natural resources in the East China Sea.

Underlying the tense nature of the meeting, Wen declined Koizumi's invitation to visit Japan. He cryptically remarked, "I hope to visit Japan in a favorable condition and environment," which was interpreted to mean either after Koizumi leaves office or after he stops visiting Yasukuni. The lack of customary top-level bilateral visits visibly demonstrates the uneasiness of Beijing's relationship with Koizumi.

Domestic challenges to Yasukuni visits
The Japanese premier is facing a multi-pronged attack on the home front over his Yasukuni forays, including a number of legal challenges on whether the visits are constitutional or infringe upon the separation of religion and politics. There is fierce criticism in the liberal press, determined opposition from left-wing politicians and growing criticism from the Japanese business community, which is worried that Koizumi's shrine antics will eventually damage business ties with China. Trade with China has been fueling the Japanese economic recovery.

Keiko Yamauchi, former opposition lawmaker and bitter opponent of the shrine visits, told Asia Times On-line, "Koizumi is clearly violating the constitution, offending our neighbors and damaging Japan's image as a peace-loving country. He should publicly apologize to China and then resign."

However, conservative and nationalist forces have rallied to Koizumi's defense, passionately dismissing arguments like Yamauchi's as nonsense, saying they are caving in to unjust Chinese demands that interfere in Japan's domestic affairs.

Yuzuru Endo, a correspondent for Japan's best-selling daily newspaper, the Yomiuri Shimbun, summed up conservative sentiment about Yasukuni in an article after the first summit with Hu. He wrote, "Chinese demands to stop the visits to the shrine and enshrine Class A Japanese war criminals separately from other war dead in the shrine are demands that Japan cannot possibly accept. As long as China brings up the problem of Yasukuni Shrine, it will be difficult for the two countries to meet halfway."

A recent editorial in the same paper was equally forthright, stating, "One of the only things standing in the way of the normal development of bilateral relations between Japan and China is China's interference in this country's internal affairs."

Conservatives are also increasingly emphasizing the growing military threat from China and its territorial ambitions. It is reported that China will be named as a threat to Japan's security in a new defense-policy document soon to be compiled. It will be the first time Tokyo mentions a specific nation as a threat to its peace and stability.

Yasukuni splits public opinion
An increasingly intense battle is now being waged in the media over the rights and wrongs of the prime minister visiting the shrine and how best to mend fences with China. Public opinion is generally split on the issue. Opinion polls taken after Koizumi's last shrine visit in January showed a roughly even divide.

A recent survey in the Asahi newspaper about whether Koizumi should continue his shrine visits indicated a similar split, with 38% supporting them while 39% said they should stop.

Hitoshi Urabe, a leading commentator at the Japanese Institute for Global Communications, said, "There are in fact many in Japan who also, as if to follow the Chinese leaders, denounce visits by big-names, especially politicians, to the shrine, but for most of the people in Japan the subject itself is disenchanting, partly because outsiders have been making so much noise about it. While most of the Japanese people realize and acknowledge that there had been unfortunate incidents on the way to and during World War II, they are puzzled by why China, and a whole bunch of media in and out of Japan, are making so much fuss over the issue. They are also skeptical when told that the prime minister's visit to the shrine is the sole obstacle and stopping it would suddenly solve every difference of view between Japan and China."

There are growing signs that the Japanese business community is becoming increasingly frustrated with Koizumi and pressure from them may force him to moderate his position further, perhaps postponing his next shrine foray until the end of next year or even until after he leaves office in 2006.

China firmly believes it is up to Koizumi to rectify the current impasse. Wen tried to explain this to him using an old Chinese expression. He told Koizumi, "Let him who tied the bell on a tiger take it off."

(This article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 1 December 2004,, and is republished with permission. Copyright belongs to Asia Times Online Ltd.)

Copyright © Japanese Institute of Global Communications