New Dynamics of Sino-Japanese Relations

Article excerpt

Sino-Japanese relations entered a new phase when Japan's new prime minister, Abe Shinzo decided to make his first foreign trip to China, thus breaking the ice on the bilateral summit that was suspended for five years under the leadership of Koizumi Junichiro. This article examines the domestic and international context of such a shift in Japan's China policy during Koizumi's final year in office and Abe's initial tenure from the fall of 2006 to the spring of 2007. It argues that Abe, although making a decisive shift from Koizumi's confrontational approach with China, has been pursuing a "double movement" strategy with China: positive engagement with Beijing for shared interests and active preparation for containing the rise of China. It offers three recommendations for strengthening the positive momentum and suppressing the negative elements in managing the Japan-China relationship.

Key words: China-Japan relations, East Asian politics, territorial disputes

Introduction

Despite the North Korean nuclear crisis looming large, Japan-China relations remain the central issue of long-term security concerns in East Asia. A stable and positive relationship between Tokyo and Beijing enhances regional stability while a Sino-Japanese confrontation worsens the prospect for regional cooperation. In recent years, Japan's economic relations with China have continued to grow. Trade and economic ties between the two countries are the closest in history. Yet under the leadership of the former prime minister, Koizumi Junichiro, from 2001 to 2005 Japan's political relations with China deteriorated. Popular opinion toward each other in both countries also turned more negative.1

The controversy surrounding Koizumi's insistence on annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where war criminals are buried among the war dead, stirred up nationalism in both countries. A large-scale, officially tolerated (at the initial stage) anti-Japanese demonstration occurred in Beijing, Shanghai, and other major Chinese cities in the spring of 2005.2 The angry outburst of Chinese youth toward what they perceived as Japan's whitewash of past aggressions sent shock waves throughout Japan. As an unintended consequence, the event forced the Japanese public to begin a domestic debate on whether Japan has truly reflected on its history. The United States, Australia, and other countries in the region also began to pay attention to the situation because they view the worsening of China-Japan relations as threatening to their own interests in East Asia. By the summer of 2006, pressure intensified for Koizumi and Japan's next prime minister to stop going to Yasukuni.

Abe Shinzo, on becoming prime minister in September 2006, decided to change Koizumi's confrontational policies by immediately visiting China and South Korea. In this article, I examine the recent changes and new developments in Japan-China relations. First, I put the latest changes in Sino-Japanese relations in the context of changing realities in the late Koizumi period. Second, I examine the China policies of the Abe cabinet and their implications. Finally, I make a few recommendations for further improvements of bilateral relations.

Fighting the Past: The Single Issue in Sino-Japanese Relations under Koizumi

Koizumi came to power in 2001, paying annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine throughout his time in office. Despite severe criticism from Beijing, Seoul, and other countries, Koizumi did not change his mind, resulting in the suspension of a summit with China for most of his tenure as prime minister. Yasukuni became the single issue that hindered a healthy relationship between Japan and its neighbors.3 However, by mid-2006, there were positive signs that Sino-Japanese relations were improving- an indication that both senior Chinese leaders and their Japanese counterparts were willing to look beyond Koizumi.

A Turn of the Tide

Political relations between China and Japan were at low ebb for much of the five years since Koizumi began his pilgrimages to Yasukuni. …