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ASIA'S TERRITORIAL DISPUTES - JAPAN: Exploring ways to warm up relations

Publication Date : 31-12-2013


"Politically cold and economically cool."

The People's Daily, an organ of the Chinese Communist Party, has referred to relations between Japan and China this way since the Japanese government nationalised some of the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea last year. This indicates that the Chinese believe bilateral relations are in the freezer, while economic exchanges have begun to chill.

In an indication of how chilly political interactions are, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi did not exchange greetings when they attended the UN General Assembly a few months ago, even though they were in the same room.

On the other hand, there are signs of an upturn in bilateral economic relations. Japan's exports to China rose 4.8 per cent in June from a year earlier, marking the third straight monthly year-on-year increase.
Japan's direct investment in China has grown despite the nationalisation of three Senkaku islets, with total investment during the January-June period this year, up 14.4 per cent from the first half of last year. During the same period, global investment in China rose only 4.9 per cent.

The two countries are inseparably bound to each other.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is exploring ways to improve relations by emphasising this point.

When questioned by a foreign reporter at a press conference in New York in September on the future prospects for bilateral relations with China, Abe stressed: "I intend to advance Japan-China relations by returning to the principle of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests, in which both countries manage the relationship so that individual issues do not affect overall relations."

Nonetheless, the real state of affairs is that no matter how hard the Japanese search for ways to improve the bilateral relationship, China may be unwilling to do so.

When Abe came into contact with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the Group of 20 summit talks in St. Petersburg on September 5, Xi grasped Abe's hand and appeared to mumble something for a while and then uttered a few words. According to a source close to Abe, the words "were essentially the same as the official views usually expressed by a spokesperson of China's Foreign Ministry concerning the Senkaku issue".

Taking over in November last year, the Xi administration is making an effort to solidify its power base at home, including its grip on the military. These efforts include the trial of Bo Xilai, a former Politburo member and Chongqing city party leader convicted of bribery, embezzlement and abuse of power, and the corruption probe into officials of a state-run oil company linked to former Politburo Standing Committee member Zhou Yongkang, who reportedly supports Bo.

If the Xi administration was seen to compromise with Japan over the Senkaku issue, particularly when it is in such a delicate situation, it could be exposed to harsh public criticism, possibly allowing opposition forces to undermine the administration.

Such a concern could be a factor behind Xi's official view of the Senkaku issue. Since Japan's nationalisation of some of Senkaku Islands, China has tried to change the status quo by having its government vessels repeatedly intrude into Japan's territorial waters around the Senkakus.

In the backdrop of the move was then Chinese President Hu Jintao's power struggles with Jiang Zemin, former general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, who supported Zhou and other anti-Hu elements. It was thus considered unavoidable for Hu to take a hard-line stance against Japan.

As long as Chinese domestic political circumstances are involved, a dramatic turn for the better in resolving the Senkaku issue is seen as highly unlikely. It can thus be argued that it is "China that is in a fix in relation to the issue, so Japan shouldn't feel impatient", as a senior Japanese foreign ministry official put it.

A high-ranking government official close to Abe said it is "advisable for Abe to remain composed despite China's provocations, while making appeals at home and in the global community that Japan is ready for dialogue".

However, it is also of critical importance that Japan be prepared for any possible contingency.

The Japan Coast Guard is scheduled to establish a surveillance and patrol system comprising 12 large patrol vessels before the end of fiscal 2015. The Defence Ministry plans to bolster reconnaissance and patrol arrangements with the help of airborne warning and control systems and E-2C early warning aircraft. It also plans to adopt Global Hawk drones in the future.

A government expert panel on restructuring the legal foundation for national security has included its agenda for discussion measures to cope with a minor degree of confrontation that falls short of being classified as military attacks. This is because the Advisory Panel on Reconstruction of the Legal Basis for Security bears in mind "a situation in which the Senkaku Islands are occupied by armed Chinese fishermen".

After emphasising the need for a return to the "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" with Beijing at a September 27 press conference, Abe said, "Japan's door is always open, and I hope that China will adopt the same attitude".

The ongoing war of nerves with China over the Senkakus is expected to go unabated.

A "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests" is a concept under which Japan and China cooperate with each other in various fields, particularly in political and economic affairs, and obtain mutual benefits from establishing such a relationship.

As Japan-China relations soured over historical issues during the administration of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, his successor Shinzo Abe proposed the concept during his visit to China in October 2006, a suggestion that was accepted by then Chinese President Hu Jintao.

When Hu visited Japan in May 2008, a Japan-China joint statement about comprehensive promotion of mutually beneficial relations, which was signed by Hu and then Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, listed specific measures they would take to build such a relationship.
They included "The two sides...are not threats to each other", and "Work together to make the East China Sea a 'Sea of Peace, Cooperation and Friendship'".

A certain degree of success was achieved between Japan and China, who had been in conflict over the development of natural gas fields in the East China Sea. In June 2008, Japan and China agreed on joint development in sea areas that straddle the median line between the two countries.


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