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Home > Debates Last Updated: 14:34 03/09/2007
Commentary (May 26, 2005)

China-Japan Relations under New Strain

J. Sean Curtin (Fellow, GLOCOM and Asia Times)

The dramatic last-minute cancellation of a meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and visiting Chinese Vice Prime Minister Wu Yi has plunged relations between Beijing and Tokyo to a perilous new low. The incident indicates that recent efforts to improve battered bilateral ties have collapsed, and highlights the complete deadlock over Koizumi's contentious annual pilgrimages to the war-tainted Yasukuni Shrine, the issue which forms the backbone of Beijing's criticisms of his administration.

A senior Japanese diplomat, who did not wish to be identified, said, "It is a very worrying development. The Chinese have thrown down the gauntlet, and the worrying thing for us is that it looks like Mr Koizumi is going to pick it up."

Before Wu abruptly called off her scheduled audience with Koizumi and prematurely returned to Beijing, she had been on an eight-day tour of Japan specifically designed to ease Sino-Japanese tensions. The fact that the goodwill mission was terminated in such an undiplomatic fashion does not bode well for Sino-Japanese relations.

Beijing has given Koizumi a highly public slap in the face and sent Tokyo the strongest possible signal of its diplomatic displeasure. Koizumi's recent comments about visiting Yasukuni infuriated Beijing and most likely triggered the latest spat. The episode appears almost certain to set the two sides on a collision course over Koizumi's annual shrine pilgrimages, the most recent of which was in January 2004.

The Tokyo shrine served as the spiritual symbol for Japan's wartime military regime, which was responsible for atrocities in China. Today it honors the nation's war-dead, but also controversially deifies 14 class A war criminals. Beijing says it is insensitive and inappropriate for a Japanese leader to pay homage at such an establishment, likening such visits to a German leader visiting a Nazi memorial.

A Japanese Foreign Ministry source said that he believes Koizumi's refusal to give an undertaking not visit the shrine this year led to Wu's sudden return home. Initially, Tokyo denied any Yasukuni connection and in a statement Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Akira Chiba said, "The Chinese side made it very specific that it has nothing to do with Yasukuni." When Koizumi was first asked if the Yasukuni factor lay behind the aborted meeting, he simply replied, "I have no idea - I have tried not to negatively affect relations with China." Wu herself merely explained her lightning departure by saying, "I have some domestic business to do."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan later said that remarks by Japanese leaders and commentary in the Japanese media about the Yasukuni Shrine during Wu's visit were a factor in canceling her meeting with Koizumi. He also said, "The Yasukuni Shrine is the top issue in Sino-Japanese relations."

Wu was the most senior Chinese official to visit Japan since 2003. The last Chinese head of state to visit Japan was former Prime Minister Zhu Rongji, in October 2000, before Koizumi came to office.

A series of angry anti-Japan demonstrations across China last month has brought Sino-Japanese relations to what Beijing says are their lowest point since diplomatic ties were established three decades ago. The protests were set off by the authorization of a Japanese history textbook which critics say whitewashes history, and further fueled by resentment at Japan's bid for a permanent United Nations Security Council seat and anger over Koizumi's annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.

There is now real fear in the business community that ever worsening political relations will eventually damage booming economic ties. So far they have not significantly harmed trade flows that generated a staggering US$170 billion in 2004. China's rapid economic growth, 9.5% in 2004, has created a massive demand for imported goods, which has fueled strong export growth for Japanese companies.

The Yasukuni cloud
Last November, Chinese President Hu Jintao advised Koizumi in blunt terms not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine in 2005. The year marks the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, which is an especially important milestone for China because its traditional calendar runs on a 60-year cycle. For Beijing, the Yasukuni visits have become a line in the sand which Koizumi must not cross.

After his encounters last year, first with Hu, and later with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao, Koizumi fell unusually silent about his shrine-going intentions and Beijing interpreted this to mean he would refrain from making a pilgrimage this year. However, on May 16, the day before Wu arrived on her fence-mending mission, Koizumi strongly hinted that he probably would visit the shrine this year. During questioning at the Lower House budget committee, he declared, "I don't understand why I should stop visiting Yasukuni Shrine," adding, "I will decide appropriately when to go."

He robustly defended his past actions, saying linking his Yasukuni pilgrimages to militarism "should not be taken seriously" and stressed that Japan was a country committed to peace. Ignoring overwhelming evidence to the contrary, he also denied that his shrine forays had in any way harmed relations with Tokyo's neighbors. "Japan's diplomacy has not been deadlocked nor isolated. It's going fine," he told disbelieving lawmakers. With more conviction he explained, "Every country wants to mourn their war dead, and other countries should not interfere with the ways countries pay tribute to the war dead."

In an attempt to justify pilgrimages to a shrine where war criminals are also worshiped, he said, "I still don't understand why it's inexcusable to pay homage and express gratitude for the war dead as a whole…It's in the teachings of Confucius, it is the offense and not the offenders that should be condemned."

Japanese diplomats are now bracing themselves for a new shrine excursion. One said, "Do not be too surprised if Mr Koizumi visits Yasukuni this autumn." Such a visit would almost certainly trigger an intense outpouring of anger in China, adding a dozen more nails to the coffin of Sino-Japanese relations.

Koizumi's comments seemed timed to undermine Wu's confidence-building trip before it had even begun. On arriving in Japan, she politely reiterated Beijing's stance: "We should carry out what the Chinese president and the Japanese prime minister have agreed to in Jakarta on promoting Sino-Japanese relations."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Kong Quan directly responded to Koizumi's remarks by saying, "It is not a question of worshipping the dead, but rather of how to face up to history."

The Chinese press took a far more critical approach, but the Beijing leadership held back its fire in the hope that Wu's mission might produce a more conciliatory tone from Koizumi. However, on Friday he made similar remarks about visiting Yasukuni and Beijing lost patience.

On Sunday at a meeting in Beijing, Hu voiced his frustration with Koizumi. He told visiting Liberal Democratic Party secretary general Tsutomu Takebe and New Komeito Party secretary general Tetsuzo Fuyushiba that he was "concerned over the visits to Yasukuni Shrine, because it is a place that enshrines convicted Japanese class A war criminals along with the war dead."

Although Hu stressed his hope for improved relations, he also raised two other areas of serious Sino-Japanese friction: the treatment of history in Japanese textbooks and Japanese policy on Taiwan. China's state-run Xinhua News Agency quoted Hu as saying Tokyo needed to "correctly deal with the history issue and the Taiwan issue by firmly learning from the past and looking to the future".

Hu also ominously warned, "China-Japan ties have developed step by step, but it would be possible to damage the relations in an instant."

Japan split on China policy
The Japanese public appears deeply divided over Koizumi's confrontational style, which has pushed Sino-Japanese relations onto the rocks. According to a recent NHK News poll, 48% of respondents opposed Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, while 40% were in favor. A Yomiuri Shimbun survey found 48% supported or somewhat supported them, while 45% opposed them.

However, the Yomiuri Shimbun poll found 65%of Liberal Democratic Party voters supported Koizumi's shrine trips, while the majority of opposition supporters opposed them. The same survey also showed deep unhappiness with Beijing's handling of last month's anti-Japanese demonstrations in China. 85% stated that Koizumi should urge Beijing to apologize and pay compensation for the angry protests. 92% said they were dissatisfied or somewhat dissatisfied with Beijing's reaction.

This climate is creating the potential for very a serious political clash, especially if, as seems likely, Koizumi defies Beijing's warning and visits Yasukuni this year. Sino-Japanese ties are in deep trouble, and Wu's unexpected return home signals that things are unlikely to improve any time soon.

Copyright 2005 Asia Times Online Ltd. A different version of this article first appeared in Asia Times Online on 24 May 2005,, and is republished with permission.

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