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Power transitions 'could worsen Sino-Japan ties'

Publication Date : 26-10-2012


The upcoming leadership transitions in China and Japan may usher in governments that bow to nationalist sentiments, experts say


The upcoming leadership transitions in China and Japan may usher in governments that bow to nationalist sentiments in their own country.

If this happens, it will inject more uncertainty into a bilateral relationship already strained by a bitter territorial dispute, experts warned.

Japan's next general election, which must be held no later than next August, could see Shinzo Abe, "one of the most hawkish and nationalistic post-war Japanese politicians", become premier, said Dr Lam Peng Er yesterday.

"If he were to visit Yasukuni Shrine, I think all hell will break loose, metaphorically speaking. That will kind of intertwine with territorial disputes," Lam, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute (EAI), told The Straits Times on the sidelines of a forum to mark the institute's 15th anniversary.

"That will be very tricky. I hope he will not be foolish enough to do that," he added.

Abe became Japan's prime minister in September 2006. During his nearly one-year tenure as premier, he refrained from going to the shrine, which honours Japan's 2.5 million war dead along with several convicted Class A war criminals.

But he had made visits on other occasions in a different capacity. Last Wednesday, he went there to pay his respects after winning the presidency of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party. His visit triggered an angry response from both China and South Korea, which view Yasukuni as a symbol of Japan's militaristic past.

Experts noted that China's presumptive next leader Xi Jinping may have less room to manoeuvre, given that he would have predecessors Hu Jintao and Jiang Zemin looking over his shoulder. Similarly for Li Keqiang, who is expected to take over from Premier Wen Jiabao.

Said Lam: "I don't think Xi Jinping or Li Keqiang will be in a position to say, 'Let's leave the dispute with Japan to the next generation.' They will be severely criticised."

Agreeing, Professor Zheng Yongnian, director of the EAI, said: "The governments of China and Japan will be weaker. They will tend to appeal to nationalism, which is quite a dangerous game."

But they have to do so in order to consolidate power and gain popularity, Zheng added.

Some analysts pointed out that while China's growing power has made it more assertive in its sovereignty claims, it will not lead to an armed conflict.

Associate Professor Li Ming- jiang at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said: "I don't see enough evidence to indicate that China is willing to pursue any confrontation, or strategic confrontation, with the United States, Japan or any other state."

He added that China, which has established "a solid and strategic foothold" in the region through its economic rise, needs a peaceful environment to develop.

However, Professor Wang Gungwu, the chairman of EAI, warned that the "unbalanced" expertise that China has in global affairs may lead to inaccurate judgment. "It has tremendous expertise on Sino-US relations, and diminishing expertise on the rest of the world," he said. "When the expertise is missing, errors of judgment become inevitable," he said.

To that, Zheng added China should pay more attention to its neighbours. "China's problem is its neighbours, which it doesn't fully understand but are very important."

The current tensions between China and Japan arose from an ownership dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islets in the East China Sea.

Lam does not see a tangible solution to the dispute, but he also does not believe that both sides are prepared to go to war over it.

"What they need is to improve on their crisis management and to have a direct hotline, and avoid playing chicken with each other in the East China Sea. It will come to no good."


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