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Abe’s popularity rise as ice melts in Sino-Japan ties

Updated On: Apr 17, 2007

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao to thank. 

According to a survey by the Nippon Television Network on Monday (16 April), support for Prime Minister Abe has topped 50% for the first time this year after the landmark visit by the Chinese Premier.

Indeed, it seemed a little-noticed gesture on the part of the Chinese government has made waves in the region and Premier Wen Jiabao appeared to have pushed all the right buttons in his recent trip to Japan.

During his speech to the Diet, the Chinese leader Premier Wen Jiabao said openly that Japan had apologised for its wartime past.  Japan’s leaders has apologized on several occasions but it was never openly acknowledged by top Chinese leaders. This was the first time that a Chinese leader representing the PRC has unequivocally acknowledged this on Japanese soil. This gesture is likely to go a long way within official circles in East Asia.

The second burning point in Japanese minds is the fact that China is ungrateful for the many years of Japanese financial aid that was crucial for China to become the economic engine that it is today. Wen put this aside by emphasizing the importance of Japanese assistance to China by thanking his hosts. Another “face” element is placated between the two great East Asian civilizations. These two factors were stumbling blocks amongst Japanese domestic audience to betterment of ties withChina. With humility and sincerity, Wen has put them to rest.

Economically, the Chinese also made significant gestures to bring cooperation to the next level.  China removed the ban on rice – easily the trickiest industry in Japanand one of the most powerful politically. Japanese rewards for such Chinese gestures were swift and decisive. Abe pledged Japan will stick to its positions stated in the three political documents between the two countries, adding that his country adheres to the one-China policy and does not support "Taiwan independence." Any Japanese support for Taiwanese independence can be devastating for China. Economically, Tokyo has dispensed an important economic incentive for the Chinese – clean energy, technologies which Japan has that are considered the most advanced in the world.

With warm gestures on both sides, the strategy now is oriented towards the future. Both sides hope to tap into the youths and leaders of tomorrow to sooth resentment. Surprisingly, for the first time, China admits that Chinese students who studied in Japan do not have a negative view of the Land of the Rising Sun. 'Feelings towards Japan are relatively positive and more positive than their feelings towards all the rest of the countries,' according to the survey conducted by Chinese Ministry of Education's Chinese Service Centre for Scholarly Exchange, and its deputy director Mr Shao Wei. This crop of Japan-trained Chinese students may eventually end up as the future political leaders in building a bridge between the two nations.

Both sides also want to get another potential issue out of the way by promoting defense cooperation through naval visits and eventually joint exercises. The essence of such cooperation seems to be summed up in carefully-chosen calligraphy displayed the occasion of a Japanese tea ceremony. Wen attended a traditional Japanese tea ceremony in a parlour with the phrase 'Mutual Respect' written in calligraphy on the wall.

While Premier Wen’s visit seemed to have been well-received by the Japanese in general, the reactions by the Chinese people themselves were less clear.  However, the rest of the region also seemed to “celebrates” the Sino-Japanese rapprochement. An editorial in a Thai daily, The Nation, recalled how Sino-Japanese rivalry has had “chilling effects on other, broader schemes including the building of an East Asia community.”

The editorial expressed relief that the two giants are making up and attributed this to Wen's softer and gentle approach to Japan. ASEAN hopes that both countries have learned the hard way and realized painfully that their diplomatic ties are not a zero-sum game, especially when the Southeast Asian region and beyond is taken into consideration. ASEAN wants to reap benefits from this period of warm China-Japan relations. For the past few years, during the Koizumi administration, whenever the Northeast giants are not on speaking terms, ASEAN which maintains close cooperation with both, inadvertently suffers. The formation of a East Asian Community (EAC), for example, was stalled as Japan and China bickered with each other.

The basic fundamental principle for ASEAN is that no country in ASEAN wants to be forced to choose between China and Japan. Therefore friendly relationship between China and Japan offered a certain stability and predictability in the region.  Some cynics would however also point out the unintended effect of Sino-Japanese rapprochement.  Stronger China-Japan relations will make it harder for ASEAN to play one against the other. Between 1995 and 2005, which coincided with the Koizumi administration, ASEAN used China as a boogeyman to get concessions from Japan both in the usual economic arena. Japan's accession to the Treaty of Amity and Cooperation in 2005 and its willingness to negotiate free-trade agreements with ASEAN members were the results of such power play. If Sino-Japanese cooperation continues, ASEAN members would have to stick to the real formula that makes economies work – greater competitiveness – instead of trying constantly to extract political and economic concessions from bigger powers.  (16 April 2007)

Sources:

Asean stands to benefit from better Japan-China ties (The Nation, 15 April 2007)

Mistrust remains deep on the ground (Straits Times, 14 April 2007)

Wen's big pitch (Straits Times, 14 April 2007)

Japan and China's precarious spring (Straits Times, 14 April 2007)

Wen's visit to S.Korea, Japan deepen feelings between peoples: Chinese FM (People’s Daily, 14 April 2007)

Wen's visit to S.Korea, Japan success in strengthening mutual political trust: Chinese FM (People’s Daily, 14 April 2007)