China's Japan Policy: Seeking Stability and Improvement in Uncertainties

By Cheng, Joseph Yu-shek | China: An International Journal, September 2011 | Go to article overview

China's Japan Policy: Seeking Stability and Improvement in Uncertainties


Cheng, Joseph Yu-shek, China: An International Journal


China's rise implies that, in Northeast Asia and in the international community, China and Japan must adjust to the new situation where there are two major powers in the region seeking to expand their respective influences that are commensurate with their comprehensive national powers. While China strives to maintain a peaceful international environment to concentrate on its modernisation efforts, it now accords increasing priority to articulating and advancing itself as a major power with increasingly diverse regional and global interests. (1) Chinese leaders understand that the nation expects an improvement in its international status, and the fulfilment of this expectation has become an important element in maintaining the legitimacy of the Party regime.

The post-Cold War era coincided with an extended period of economic stagnation in Japan. Since the Gulf War of 1990-1991, Japan has tended to give greater emphasis to comprehensive coordination with the United States' strategy. Japan's relative economic decline and China's impressive growth have gradually generated a "China threat" perception in the eyes of the Japanese public, as evidenced by myriads of publications on the topic prominently displayed in major bookstores in Japan. At the same time, there is also the rising spirit of Japanese nationalism which demands that its contribution to the international community be recognised in terms of international status and that it should become a "normal state". In this context, Sino-Japanese controversies have been exacerbated and the momentum to promote regional economic integration has largely evaporated. (2)

This article examines China's recent Japan policy, which has generally been recognised as a problem area in its foreign policy. (3) It studies the ups and downs in the bilateral relationship and how the Chinese foreign-policy establishment perceives Japan's foreign-policy orientations. The article also considers Beijing's analysis of Japan's "China threat" perception and Japan's rising nationalism. On this basis, the broad framework of China's Japan policy and its objectives are examined.

The ups and downs in the bilateral relationship illustrate the uncertainties in Sino-Japanese relations and in the international environment. The rise of China and the relative decline of the US will bring about important changes in the regional and international balance of power. This in turn will have a significant impact on Japan's "China threat" perception and its ambitions to improve its international status and emerge as a "normal state". The instability in the Japanese domestic political scene means that foreign policy decisions may lack continuity, especially when major adjustments are called for. The strengthening hedging strategies of ASEAN countries and even India may exacerbate the mutual distrust. Finally, the sharp fluctuations in the international economy introduce new opportunities and challenges in terms of cooperation and competition. While realising the deteriorating uncertainties, Chinese leaders understand that they have to work harder in the pursuit of stability and improvements in China's relations with its important neighbours, especially Japan, as Sino-Japanese relations are generally perceived as a problem area.

The Rapid Changes of Government in Japan and the Evolution of Sino-Japanese Relations

The stepping down of Koizumi Junichiro as prime minister in September 2006 improved Sino-Japanese relations. There have been five prime ministers since September 2006, each with an average tenure of about one year. The present prime minister, Kan Naoto, is now under immense pressure from the opposition parties and some leaders of his own party to step down. Despite his earlier hard-line position on China, Abe Shinzo, Koizumi's successor, visited China and South Korea on his first foreign visit in October 2006. The Chinese leadership warmly responded to Japan's "icebreaking" visit and reciprocated the goodwill by having Premier Wen Jiabao visit Japan the following April. …

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