Teething problems arises as Abe reaches out to China and discovers that diplomacy is not as easy as it seems, especially with Japan’s number one trading partner and its largest neighbour.
But, surprisingly, for a conservative hawk, Abe is remarkably fast and aggressive in pursuing normalization of ties with China, especially in seeking bilateral head-of-state talks with China. While Japan plays hardball with reaching out to China, China plays hard to get, at times warm and other times cool to Japanese outreach. Chinese spokesman Qin Gang started off Chinese response with a note of caution in the need to solve Yasukuni first, then it was ambiguously followed by Premier Wen Jiabao’s very upbeat message of doing all he can to work for Sino-Japanese ties.
It was again followed by Chinese proclamations on the importance of resolving Yasukuni while having quiet sub-cabinet talks with China on resuming the dialogue. Clearly, China wants to give the Abe administration a run for its money by not appearing too enthusiastic to repair ties but secretly and quietly moving fast to acceptJapan’s gestures. On the Japanese side, Japan is a lot less ambiguous in wanting China’s embrace but at times, in this early stage of cabinet/administration formation, some of its leaders are tripping over policy-making.
This may be due to the inherent contradiction of Abe’s cabinet makeup and its agenda. Its appointees are conservatives but the political goals the administration professes include those with liberal outlook. While Japan’s director of defense agency called China a ‘threat’ drawing immediate Chinese rebuke, Abe’s cabinet secretary calls its Chinese outreach the ‘wide open door’ policy. Foreign Minister Aso reiterated that the ball is in China’s court to accept the Japanese gesture.
Nevertheless, amidst such contradictions, Sino-Japanese management of ties has shown remarkable maturation. For example, when Japan’s defense agency director voiced his China threat statement, the Chinese side issued a strong statement but smoothed it out with newfound mature diplomatic gestures by reasoning that the Japanese Defense Director considered China a threat because of his newness in his appointment and cordially invites him for a visit to Beijing to observe Chinese military progress firsthand.
And the ultimate Japanese gesture to cater to Chinese face-saving? The willingness of Abe to travel to Beijing to repair five years of strained political ties. In return, Abe hopes to be rewarded in the economic arena, including uninterrupted continuance of Chinese procurement of Japanese products, avoiding Chinese economic boycotts or retaliations which some said was lurking in the recent Chinese recall of Japanese-produced SK II products.
Another factor pushing this reconciliation is the motivation by the only superpower in the world, USA, in voicing its desire for Sino-Japanese ties to be on track again.US interests in the Northeast Asian region is an acute need to resolve the North Korean missile crisis peacefully with crucial Chinese pressure on its ally whileWashington restrains the increasingly desperate Taiwanese President Chen Shuibian from moving towards independence. USA simply cannot afford to have conflicts in this region while its troops are tied up in Iraq which increasingly resembles a civil war situation. To preserve US interests, Washington needs China and Japan to get along with each other.
Washington is keen to see a stable environment in Northeast Asia and has been recently spooked by relatively rising instability in the South. Religious conflicts and potential pandemic originator (Indonesia), military coup (Thailand), human rights issues (Cambodia), leadership tussle (Malaysia), superpower energy rivalry (Myanmar), societal unrest (East Timor) is far too much for the US to handle alone. China and Japan are increasingly seen as pillars of stability in the region, each with a different role for Washington – Japan being a close military ally and China as a regional stakeholder.
Abe wants closer ties with US and Asia (Straits Times, 30 September 2006)
New PM seeks stronger Japan, better Asian ties (Channelnewsasia, 29 September 2006)
Abe hopes shrine coyness won't miff China: Aso (Japan Times, 29 September 2006)
Abe ready for China summit any time, aide says (People’s Daily, 28 September 2006)
White House hails Abe, hopes he mends Asia ties (Japan Times, 28 September 2006)
Cabinet gets 65% support; 50% oppose Yasukuni visits: poll (Japan Times, 28 September 2006)
Japan seeks imminent China talks (BBC News, 27 September 2006)
Shinzo Abe’s Asian Challenge (NY Times, 27 September 2006)