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China and Post-Koizumi Japan

Updated On: May 26, 2006

It was the most important 90-minute talk that China and Japan has had for some time.

The Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers held their first talks on 23 May 2006 in more than a year on the sidelines of the Asia Cooperation Dialogue in Qatar. Media coverage reported that it started warmly.  While restricted mainly to diplomatic niceties, it is nevertheless a good start.

The fact that the meeting even took place after months of speculation and backdoor maneuverings was itself a cause for optimism as China’s agreement to the talk was interpreted by Japan as a sign that China intends to mend its relations with Japan. The meeting took two weeks of furious negotiations between the two countries’ diplomats to organize. Shinzo Abe, the Japanese government’s chief spokesperson and himself a rival to Mr Aso for the position of Japan’s next PM, gave his interpretation of the meeting. 'I understand Mr Aso and Mr Li emphasised that Japan-China relations are one of the most important bilateral relations in the world.'

Despite the upswing in the oscillating Sino-Japanese curve, however, the same issue remains. China cited Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to the Yasukuni war shrine as the key obstacle to improving relations. 'The repeated visits by the Japanese leader to Yasukuni which commemorates past criminals of World War II seriously offends the sentiments of the Chinese people and violates the political foundation of a bilateral relation,' Mr Li told Mr Aso.

In a long editorial published by the state-run People’s Daily on 23 May 2006, the writer urged Japan to view it as a world issue, particularly given Chinese interpretations of recent statements about the importance of history enunciated by the UN Secretary General Kofi Annan. Other complications remain. The shrine visits remain a heated issue for Japanese society. This was demonstrated by the incident where Japan’s Trade Minister, known for his close ties with China, received a razor blade in his mail with a letter urging him not to flatter Beijing and to commit suicide. This was revealed to the international press on 24 May 2006.

To offset the continuing specter of the shrine visit, the two foreign ministers tried to institutionalize other devices to lock in their otherwise strong ties in trade and cultural exchanges. They agreed that Beijing and Tokyo should 'deepen' economic and trade links, as well as continue a vice-ministerial security dialogue and military-to-military exchanges. The military feature is a new one that is targeted at critics within Japan mirroring the US Department of Defense’s view that Chinese military buildup was a threat. The strategy is to create a web of communication with inter-locking platforms of exchange to sustain ties and accentuate strong economic relations as the two countries are likely to view the shrine visits as an enduring one even after PM Koizumi leaves the scene. China meanwhile waits and observes what the next Japanese PM will do.

Recent speculation is rife over Koziumi’s successor as the next Japanese PM. Abe Shinzo, the leading candidate is seen as a cautious hawk with more or less the same views on shrine visits and relations with China. Yasuo Fukuda, former chief cabinet secretary, his main rival and well-connected with Beijing and Washington. Fukuda went to both South Korea and the US to gather support for his political fight. "Fukuda is emerging as the front-runner among the anti-Koizumi and anti-Abe forces," said a source within the Liberal Democratic Party to the Asahi Shimbun. The third candidate, seen as a clear hawk within the Japanese political establishment, is Taro Aso, ironically the same man who held the talks with the Chinese FM in Qatar.

Amongst the three, Fukuda is seen as Japan’s biggest hope of rapprochement with China. Fukuda, 69, who seeks friendly neighborly relations with other Asian countries, opposes Koizumi's visits to war-related Yasukuni Shrine while Abe, 51, supports such visits. In a recent Asahi poll, of those who picked diplomacy as the policy priority, 41 percent backed Fukuda, exceeding Abe's 32 percent. Whatever the outcome, China is watching closely.

Sources:

First Sino-Japan talks in a year signal thawing ties (Straits Times, 25 May 2006)

Japan minister gets razor blade threat over China ties (Straits Times, 24 May 2006)

Fukuda closing the gap on Abe for LDP leadership (Asahi, 24 May 2006)

Yasukuni Shrine issue is a world issue (People’s Daily, 23 May 2006)

Shrine visits won't disrupt Japan's economic ties with China: MM Lee (Straits Times, 23 May 2006)

Chinese, Japanese FMs to hold meeting in Qatar (People’s Daily, 23 May 2006)