Japan vs China: Nothing Good Can Come from It
Frank Ching (Commentator based in Hong Kong)
A year after anti-Japanese demonstrations broke out in China, the two countries are no closer to resolving their many differences - over history, the demarcation of their maritime border and the exploitation of natural resources beneath the seabed, to name just a few.
In fact, media reports that China has banned all navigation in an area of the East China Sea - to facilitate the laying of cables and oil pipelines - spurred Tokyo to demand an explanation from Beijing and may well lead to the lodging of an official protest.
China's maritime bureau had announced that, due to work on the Pinghu oil-gas-field expansion project, no ships would be permitted into the area until the end of September.
Japan's chief cabinet secretary, Shinzo Abe, revealed that Japan had expressed its concern to Beijing, saying the notice "if implemented, may breach our sovereign rights and violate the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea".
On Tuesday, the issue was defused. Beijing told Tokyo that the ban on shipping had been revised, so that it no longer covered waters on the Japanese side of the contested area.
The exclusive economic zones claimed by China and Japan overlap, and the two countries have not been able to resolve outstanding issues despite holding a series of high-level talks.
Another long-standing problem has been the approval by the Japanese Ministry of Education, every few years, of new history textbooks that play down Tokyo's invasion of China and atrocities committed during that period. A new twist emerged recently, when the ministry called for textbooks to be revised so that islands claimed by South Korea and China are presented as indisputably Japanese.
The Chinese have made it clear that the biggest problem in the bilateral relationship is Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's insistence on visiting the Yasukuni Shrine every year. The Shinto shrine honours 2.5 million war dead, including 14 executed Class-A war criminals. Because of the Yasukuni issue, no summit meetings were held by the two countries in 2002 - to mark the 30th anniversary of the normalisation of relations - or in 2003, to mark the 25th anniversary of the signing of a friendship treaty.
President Hu Jintao has made it clear that Chinese leaders will not visit Japan, or invite the Japanese leader to China, until these visits stop. However, Mr Koizumi has persisted, going again to the shrine last October - his fifth time since becoming prime minister in 2001.
The problem with issuing an ultimatum is that, if the other party refuses to give in, then one is often stuck in an embarrassing position. Former US president Bill Clinton experienced this after he publicly declared in 1993 that, if there was no "overall significant progress" in Beijing's human-rights record, then he would terminate its most-favoured-nation trade status the following year.
Beijing called his bluff and Mr Clinton had to change course, confessing: "We have reached the end of the usefulness of that policy."
It looks increasingly likely that Mr Koizumi's successor, whoever he may be, will follow the current leader's course and defy Beijing by continuing to visit the shrine. If that happens, will China be flexible enough to bend - or will it insist on keeping the relationship on ice, despite the destructive ramifications of such a policy?
Beijing should realise that, if political relations with Japan deteriorate, there is no way that the economic relationship, too, will not suffer. Already, the Yomiuri newspaper has reported that, while Japan's total investment in China continues to rise, the mainland's share of overall Japanese investment in Asia has fallen from 56 per cent in 2004 to 40 per cent last year.
(Originally appeared in the April 19, 2006 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)