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Sino-Japanese strategic ties?

Updated On: Jan 05, 2007

While 2007 has heralded in mixed news for East Asia, there is at least one bright spark - China and Japan are rebuilding ties with the Japanese openly seeking to build “strategic ties” with China.

In his New Year statement, Japanese Prime Minister, Mr Shinzo Abe said: 'I have agreed with Chinato bolster already cordial ties into a mutually beneficial, strategic relationship. 'I plan to build forward-looking relations based on trust,' Mr Abe said, according to the Associated Press news agency which carried a text of his statement.

Even before this statement, Abe had already given his blessings to Japanese and Chinese experts meeting in Beijing to conduct a joint study of their nations' shared history. Although this joint study is nothing new nor did it derive anything concrete, the fact that the joint committee met was regarded as something of a breakthrough, given the animosity in the Koizumi era.

Some already suspect that Abe’s Sino-Japanese rapprochement policies are a sideshow intended to boost Abe’s domestic popularity, given his low ratings recently. In this sense, Abe is trying to shore up support through policies that are working, especially in the foreign relations realm with China as opposed to his highly-criticized domestic policies, particularly those surrounding economic reforms. 

Others have examined closely Abe’s diplomacy with China. The big business-friendly Tokyo Shimbun daily suggested that Mr Abe had managed to gain Beijing’s trust because of an unspoken agreement that he would not pray at the Yasukuni shrine in exchange for a visit by Chinese premier Wen Jiabao to Tokyoin spring.

But this is quite unlikely, given that Abe’s support comes primarily from the conservative and the right-leaning. The more likely gesture from the Japanese side would be an avoidance of a visit to the Shrine on 15 August 2007which commemorates Japan's surrender to Allied Forces in WWII and go for a comparatively more politically-neutral date of 17-20 October 2007 during Yasukuni's autumn festival. Another possibility is going to the Shrine in secrecy away from media glare in contrast with former PM Koizumi. After all, the Shrine is all about the ‘face’ factor which is all-important in Sino-Japanese ties.

The Chinese are reciprocating and are optimistic about the outlook of Sino-Japanese ties. State Councillor Tang Jiaxuan declared to Yohei Kono, speaker of the House of Representatives that: "It is a common task for both of us to seize the opportunity and consolidate the positive development trend of bilateral relations". The factionally and politically-powerful Kono is considered a long-time friend of China's and had urged Koizumi to reconsider his annual visit to Yasukuni Shrine in consideration for ties with China.

Tang, a former foreign minister and a Japanese specialist still politically well-connected, also added that high-level visits should be maintained and the countries should "properly handle major sensitive issues such as those involving history and Taiwanso as to avoid another disturbance to the normal development of bilateral relations." For Abe, it is domestic popularity that is at stake and for China, it is a matter of keeping Japanese hands off Taiwan.  However, the most recent announcement that defence and foreign affairs officials from Japanand the US will be meeting next month to consider joint plans in the event of a Chinese invasion of Taiwanmay irkChina. How Japan maintains its close relations with the USand yet maintaining certain independent strategic thinking towards Chinawould be crucial for further Sino-Japanese rapprochement.  

Sources:

US, Japan to draft plans for TaiwanNorth Korea (Straits Times Interactive, 4 January 2007)

Japan PM to seek strategic ties with China (Manila Bulletin, 1 January 2007)

ChinaJapanmeet on history (Straits Times, 26 December 2006)

Senior Chinese official says ties at a new starting point (Japan Times, 26 December 2006)