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Home > Opinions Last Updated: 13:26 12/25/2007
December 25, 2007

A New Hope for Japan-China Relations?

J. Sean Curtin (Westminster University)

Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda's four-day trip to China offers an opportunity for both countries to reshape the dynamics of their tense relationship. The well-received visit of Premier Wen Jiabao to Tokyo last April laid the groundwork for a potentially significant shift in ties. The onus is now on Japan to keep up the momentum and the question is can Mr. Fukuda rise to the challenge? He is certainly the most China-positive prime minister in over a decade and key posts in his administration are held by openly pro-China politicians such as Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura and Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura. After the political turbulence of the Koizumi years (2001-2006), conditions are at last right to forge a new Sino-Japanese understanding. During his four-day China tour PM Fukuda is scheduled to meet President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen as well as deliver a much anticipated speech at Beijing University on the future Japan-China ties. There is a real chance that this visit will mark the start of a new chapter in Sino-Japanese relations.

The political relationship between East Asia's two economic giants is regrettably far too backward-looking and as the Koizumi years so graphically demonstrated highly volatile. Leaders on each side realize that for the long-term good of both countries, as well as the region, a new more balanced approach must be found. At the heart of bilateral strife are sensitive historical issues which must be properly addressed if Tokyo ever wants to escape the current moribund state of affairs. Since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1972, tensions over a host of historical grievances, especially Japan's wartime occupation, have constantly poisoned ties and impeded the development of a normal bilateral relationship. In recent years the Chinese leadership has signalled that it is ready to establish a more forward-looking relationship, but the tensions created during the Koizumi premiership put such ideas in deep freeze. However, his successor, Shinzo Abe, presided over a rapid thawing in bilateral relations and Prime Minister Fukuda is now tasked with trying to create a new more stable basis for the bilateral framework. What does Fukuda have to do to push the China-Japan dynamic towards a new more positive dimension? Primarily, he has to begin to tackle the sensitive historical issues which lie at the very heart of bilateral tensions and too often overshadow all the positive aspects of the relationship. This is a theme Fukuda may well address in his Beijing University speech and it will be interesting to see if he can match Wen Jiabao's reconciliatory remarks made in his speech to the Japanese parliament.

Now is a highly favourable time to begin such a historic process as there are currently so many positives in the Sino-Japanese equation, the most obvious being booming economic exchanges which are constantly breaking new records. Strengthening trade and commercial links will be a prominent feature of the Fukuda visit. The excellent state of economic ties was underlined during Premier Wen's visit to Tokyo which produced a string of mutually beneficial agreements and created the environment for more. The April summit also underscored the drastically improved political climate as it marked the first such visit to Japan by a Chinese premier in almost seven years. Moreover, Wen made a groundbreaking effort to reach out to the Japanese people in the speech he delivered to parliament which emphasized the mutual suffering of both people's during the war. He laid responsibility for the historic tragedy on a small band of reckless military leaders. A recent illustration of the greatly improved political milieu was the visit of a Chinese warship to Tokyo in November, the first such port call since 1934.

Naturally, as in most diplomatic exchanges there are a host of negatives in the equation. Currently media attention is focused on the natural resources dispute in the East China Sea, but despite the tough-sounding rhetoric from both sides, some form of resolution eventually seems likely as the parties are locked in negotiations. By comparison historical issues appear far more intractable and will require a considerably greater degree of top-level political willpower and sensitivity to move forward.

A powerful reminder of this type of issue was the 13th December events across China to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Rape of Nanjing in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese soldiers and civilians were slaughtered by invading Japanese forces. Chinese historians estimate about 300,000 people were killed, while some Japanese experts put the figure at between 100,000 and 200,000 with revisionist rightwing extremists claiming the numbers were much lower. Disagreement about such a traumatic historical incident naturally generates deep-seated resentment towards Japan, but in recent years efforts have been made to bridge the divide. The Japanese government officially acknowledges that "acts of slaughter" took place after Nanjing's capture, while Japanese history textbooks used in schools cite the massacre and both sides agree there was a terrible loss of life. There is a definite convergence of positions from which a basis for creating better mutual understanding could be created provided the political will is forthcoming. The seeds of reconciliation are already present, but they need to be carefully nurtured.

Emotive historical issues are extremely difficult for any Japanese leader to address, but Fukuda must at least begin to tackle them to some degree if he is to break the current stagnation of the Beijing-Tokyo axis. His visit to Beijing will indicate if Japan is ready to forge a new China-Japan accord or whether East Asia's two most important nations must continue to wait for a new beginning which both so desperately need.

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