Japan's turbulent ties with its neighbours - whose fault?

Updated On: May 09, 2006

Japan’s turbulent relations with its immediate neighbours – China and South Korea – continue to hoard the headlines these few days.

Both China and Japan are seeing nationalism on the upswing. Both countries see each other’s nationalism as troublesome.  While China continued to criticize the Yasukuni shrine visits by Japanese politicians, Japan has also stepped up criticisms of China by pointing to the lack of transparency on China’s increased defence spending.

One of the leading critics on China in the Japanese government, Mr Aso, 65, reiterated Japanese and US calls for China to be more transparent about its military spending. 'There has been a double-digit growth in China's defence spending for the past 18 years,' said Mr Aso. 'In order to build confidence among its partners, it is important for China to increase its military transparency. China's transformation into a truly democratic nation will also become an unavoidable path in the future.' He also called on Asian countries to resist 'narrow-minded nationalism' in what appeared to be a thinly veiled reference to growing Chinese and South Korean hostility towards Japan.

Despite all these fierce criticisms of each other, there are also signs that groups in China and Japan wants the two regional powers to get together and talk to mend the relations. There is strong economic mutualism between the two and it is growing stronger by the day. In the same speech where he criticized Chinese nationalism, there were coded language to tone down some of his criticism of China. FM Aso said the increase in Sino-Japanese trade, which has risen eightfold between 1991 and 2005, had been 'critical' in helping to pull Japan out of the long-term recession that plagued the country in the 1990s. He then quietly sent an envoy to China to ask for talks. 'We believe that there is a need to hold dialogue on various levels between Japan and China,' the Kyodo News agency quoted Undersecretary for Foreign Affairs Shotaro Yachi as saying. The Japanese overtures come just one month after Chinese appeals for talks.

With the LDP Hashimoto-Fukuda-Kono-Yamazaki, trade organization Keidanren and Ozawa (Minshuto) lobbying for better China ties on the Japanese side and Councilor Tang Jiaxuan and the pro-ties Chinese Foreign Ministry on the Chinese side working for Sino-Japanese rapprochement, they may just give peace a chance. But then again, all these peace overtures may again come to a halt for sometime should Premier Koizumi made his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on the sensitive date of 15th August, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender. 

For South Korea-Japan ties, the most recent eruption is over the Dokdo (Takeshima in Japan) islands. South Korea on Thursday 4 May 2006 announced a five-year plan to explore and develop resources in waters surrounding the disputed islets in a move to bolster its control over the territory, which is also claimed by Japan. It will spend about 34 billion won (4.1 billion yen) until 2010 to explore and manage fisheries and mineral resources in waters around the islets.

Because the area is a rich fishing ground believed to also have deposits of methane hydrate, a potential natural gas source, South Korea intends to boost its military presence there, augmenting and upgrading facilities on the islets, where a small South Korean police detachment of some 30 is already garrisoned. This is the second augmentation in a year’s time. Last March, South Korean had already armed its police on the island with heavy guns.

Some speculate that the unusually strong response was due to South Korean intelligence that said a Japanese naval vessel in 2000 had conducted a maritime survey around South Korea's Dokdo islets in the East Sea. It does not want to be caught unaware this time and thus has set up an 18-ship naval blockade around a disputed group of islands as well as dispatching the 5000-ton Sambong.

Japan seeks top ministerial talks with China (Straits Times, 8 May 2006)
Aso gives warning on East Asian ties (Straits Times, 5 May 2006)
 appeals for Japan's positive response to mend ties (People’s Daily, 7 April 2005)
Japan should face up to wartime aggression (People’s Daily, 15 August 2005)
Japan seeks to revise rules for military cooperation (Straits Times, 6 May 2006)
Aso gives warning on East Asian ties (Straits Times, 5 May 2006)Seoul to develop resources near disputed islets to bolster hold (Japan Times, 5 May 2006)
'Japanese Navy Did Survey Near Dokdo' (KBC, 27 April 2006)JapanKorea renew isles row (The Age with Reuters, 19 April 2006)
Skorea vows to tighten hold on islands claimed by Japan (Australian Broadcasting Corporation, 18 March 2005)
Koizumi considers war shrine visit on sensitive date: report (Channelnewsasia, 8 May 2006)