Unlike the old days when there was a Soviet Union and China and Japan were quasi-strategic allies, today the situation is different. As the world changes, the “good days” of the Sino-Japanese relationship are probably over. However, after a serious crisis over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands in 2012-2013, which sank the China-Japan relationship to the lowest point since the normalization of relations in 1972, the ties have endured, and they will only be reemerging again, albeit slowly and with limitations. China’s strong reactions to Japan’s “nationalization” of the islands forced Tokyo to acquiesce to and tacitly admit the fact that there exists a territorial dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and the whole world is now aware of this. The Japanese government’s “no dispute” position has been shaken significantly. Both Chinese and Japanese coast guards are patrolling the Diaoyu/Senkaku waters these days. In this sense, China’s goal was basically realized, while an eventual solution of the dispute has to be left to the future. This being the case, fundamentally, neither China nor Japan wants tensions between them, let alone an armed conflict. The positive developments in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations since 2014 are revealing.
First, politically, driven by a desire for an improved relationship, the two sides met face to face behind the scenes and made the trip of Yachi Shotaro, Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s national security advisor, to Beijing possible for talks with Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, right before the 2014 APEC Leaders’ Meeting. The Yachi-Yang talks ended with a written understanding called a “four-point consensus,” which paved the way for the the Xi Jinping-Abe meeting during APEC—a significant move to bring the Sino-Japanese relationship back on track. A follow-up meeting was held in April 2015 in Jakarta, Indonesia during the Asia-Africa summit commemorating the sixtieth anniversary of the 1955 Bandung Conference. This also happened on the sidelines of a multilateral gathering of national leaders. Even if an exchange of high-level visits remains difficult to schedule, there are more opportunities at multilateral summits in the coming months and years that China and Japan can utilize for the purpose of, at least, not allowing the bilateral relationship to derail. Basically, the issue is manageable.
Second, over the last couple of years, almost all the regular dialogue or consultation mechanisms between China and Japan have resumed. Even before the November 2014 Xi-Abe meeting, the bilateral Maritime Affairs Consultation had already resumed in September in Qingdao. Only four months later, the third consultation was held in Yokohama, again bringing together representatives from the various ministries or agencies of both governments. There, an agreement was reached including setting up a dialogue window between China and Japan’s Coast Guard headquarters. This will be an unprecedented step for better communications between the two law-enforcing agencies. In addition, the Eighth Energy-Saving and Environmental Protection forum was held in Beijing in December 2014. The China-Japan Security Dialogue also resumed after a four-year hiatus in Tokyo as Assistant Foreign Minister Liu Jianchao and his Japanese counterpart met in March 2015. The next China-Japan High-Level Economic Dialogue has been set. Had Abe not visited the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013, the dialogues would have resumed even sooner.
When the official relationship encounters difficulty, people to people ties can often play a useful and larger role for maintenance of a normal Sino-Japanese relationship. The role of semi-official or public diplomacy has been reemphasized and its importance acknowledged for a resilient bilateral relationship. A major visit of a 3000-person delegation from Japan happened in May 2015. Xi Jinping unexpectedly welcomed this mostly private Japanese delegation of tourism and local government officials to Beijing, declaring that China stands “ready to work with the Japanese side to advance neighborly friendship and cooperation…” It was an important signal from the China side for an improvement in the bilateral relationship. The head of the Japanese delegation, Nikai Toshihiro, a senior member of the LDP, traveled to China with a personal letter from Abe Shinzo that was forwarded to Xi. Nikai’s leadership of the delegation and delivery of the prime minister’s message indicate that Abe was trying to build on the recent rapprochement between the two countries. Both China and Japan are seeking to put aside seemingly intractable differences over territorial disputes and wartime history in search of beneficial ways to work with each other. Resultantly, ties between the two neighbors have thawed further.
Third, during 2015, which is the seventieth anniversary year marking the victory for China and the anti-fascist allies and the defeat of Japan in 1945, it is crucial to properly manage the Sino-Japanese relationship. It was all too natural that China decided to hold a series of high-profile commemorative activities, including an unprecedented large-scale military parade on September 3, in part to remind the Japanese“deniers” of its war past and the atrocities wartime Japan imposed on Chinese and other Asian peoples, and to warn some Japanese political forces as well not to make the denials repeatedly as if the “comfort women” were “voluntary” in serving the Japanese army. In this context, Yachi’s July trip to China should be seen as another high-level communications effort, apparently to help arrange a visit to China for Abe. Reportedly, China came up with three preconditions for such a visit, including upholding the four political documents between Japan and China, inheriting the spirit of the 1995 Murayama statement on the war, and no more visits to the Yasukuni Shrine.
Fourth, after a couple of years’ moratorium, the leaders’ meeting among China, Japan, and South Korea has reemerged as a possibility. During the first half of 2015, the three foreign ministers gathered together after a lag of about three years. Usually, a foreign ministers’ meeting is supposed to make preparations for the upcoming leaders’ summit. Although this time the situation was somewhat different, this left the door open for a three-way summit to be held during 2015. Whether this will happen is conditioned on the degree of success of China-Japan interactions throughout the third quarter. Earlier this year, the China-ROK FTA was reached and will take effect soon. This development will prompt China-Japan-ROK trilateral FTA negotiations to be put on the agenda. A trilateral FTA would, hopefully, help institutionalize more the links among the three major Asian nations, boost the relationships among them, and, to some extent, also serve as an antidote to the history problem and other controversies.
Finally, on the societal level, a sharp increase in the number of Chinese visitors has been a major boom to the Japanese economy, which has struggled to gain traction following the recent recession. Japan wants to have more tourists from China, and China has, in fact, become the country from where the largest groups of foreign tourists to Japan come. Despite the recent imbroglio over the disputed islands, the growing number of Chinese tourists indicates that the visitors can get beyond political controversy and separate their visits to Japan from high politics. This fact reveals that the Chinese people have the capability to remain open-minded toward Japan, which Japan should appreciate. People in Japan should become equally open-minded toward China.
For Beijing, Japan policy has been an important item in its foreign relations, also a difficult one, which has experienced many twists and turns over the years. This has been affected by a number of factors, including the miserable collective memory of history. However, China has always seen Japan as a key part of its immediate external environment and put Japan high on its foreign policy agenda. In 2012-2013, Beijing was forced to react furiously to the Japanese government’s outrageous act of “nationalizing” the islands. When that round of action-reaction gradually receded, China has come back and continues to see Japan as an important neighboring country that certainly cannot be ignored. Thus, Beijing does not hope to see the relationship strained for long and tensions linger since this is clearly not in its national interest.
However, China’s Japan policy is not without challenges. By reinterpreting the Constitution, Mr. Abe and his government have loosened Japanese constitutional constraints on its security policy to allow the exercise of“collective defense.” Recently, the Abe government moved to take advantage of the LDP’s majority status in both houses of the Diet and passed the national security legislation in the Lower House. In the South China Sea, Japan has tried to coalesce with the Philippines and Vietnam to counter China and has even decided to send in ships to patrol the sea. This two-sided approach Tokyo has adopted does not please Beijing. Nevertheless, China chooses to improve relations with its “immovable neighbor,” i.e., Japan. After all, while China is determined to safeguard what it sees as legitimate rights (wei quan), in the East China Sea for example, it also wants to maintain stability (wei wen).