The Association of Southeast Asian Nations' series of summit meetings next month, with its multilateral setting, offers some hope of mending the strained ties between Japan and China, the chairman of a Singapore think tank said in a recent interview.
The 10-member group will hold its annual summit meetings in Cambodia next month, which will also involve leaders from East Asia, and this will provide a good opportunity for the Chinese and Japanese leaders to meet and to try to resolve the tension over their territorial dispute, Simon Tay, chairman of the Singapore Institute of International Affairs, told Kyodo News earlier this week.
"We will have the East Asia Summit, the ASEAN-plus processes, so they are forced to meet, at least they have a chance to meet," he said. "The best optimism I have is just patching over...it's clear that this relationship is not viable, not a sound relationship." He stressed, "Effort must be taken to build trust, build those track-two and other ties that really can help."
He said the current flare-up of tension between the two East Asian giants in their dispute over the islands called Senkaku by the Japanese and Daioyu by the Chinese shows a lack of trust and diplomatic channels between the two countries. "Even if it was not meant to be provocation, it was taken to be provocation. Perceptions differ so much," he said. "The problem is that this kind of trust is not there between China and Japan for a long time, so the front door is the only thing you have and that's not a good position."
He lamented that even the growing economic interdependence between the two countries has clearly not helped to prevent the problem. "The idea that economic interdependence will help soothe over, salve wounds of the past, that idea seems foolish. It's also doubly sad because these problems aren't happening just between the governments...but worse, I think, happening in the people. So it's like this wound is not healing, in fact it's spreading."
He said it looks like any kind of "Franco-German" style rapprochement is "now impossible." "All we hope is that the other relationships don't go badly," he said, pointing to cooperation that has involved both China and Japan in the context of ASEAN.
He said the strained bilateral tie is bad for both Japan and China, even though China could lose more than Japan. "Both sides do not gain, but I would say that if I have to estimate, China probably is likely to be the bigger loser," he said.
Japanese companies that have invested so much into China are reassessing whether to continue to invest in China -- which is not good for China, and is not good for Japan unless Japan can find an alternative. He said if Japanese companies don't feel safe anymore in China, they might consider moving to Southeast Asia. He believes the current tension has also been fuelled by the "broader weakness of the politics" in these countries. He also observed Japan's opposition Liberal Democratic Party has recently picked former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe as its new leader.
"He may be very nationalistic, hawkish, but you may never know sometimes it is the hawk that can make the peace, like Nixon," he said, referring to then U.S. President Richard Nixon whose 1972 visit to Beijing marked the first time a U.S. president had visited China and ended more than two decades of frosty ties between the two sides.
On the other hand, as for China, he said, "Things might settle down" after the Communist Party of China convenes its 18th National Congress on Nov. 8 that involves a once-in-a-decade leadership transition. But he added, "Even if it is slightly more settled than now, we cannot really expect a new Chinese leader to say the first thing I am going to do is make peace with Japan."’