Japan and China Running Against the Clock

Wednesday, 21. January 2009     0 comment(s)
Kristian Kurki
Research Assistant

After a succession of highly constructive top-level summits and reciprocity since Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s milestone visit to Beijing in 2006, Sino-Japanese relations are at risk of running adrift – again.

Even at the best of times, relations between Japan and China have been complicated and belied one-dimensional assessments like “good” or “bad.” There have been spells of “worrying tension” as well as days marked by “promising developments.” Political and economic relations follow largely disparate sets of rules. Overall, Sino-Japanese relations are a mixed bag of potatoes and onions.

Nevertheless, if pushed for a generalised appraisal, relations over the last two and a half years would merit a grade that’s well above average.

This is because Abe’s successors, Fukuda Yasuo and current office-holder Aso Taro, have honoured his bold initiative to warm China relations by sustaining top-level visits, friendly warship port calls and efforts to alleviate tensions over resources and territory disputes. Sino-Japanese diplomacy is no longer a game of scornful insinuation.

The problem is that these achievements amount to little more than baby steps if not carried through in the long-term, and the chronic weakness of Japan’s leadership is undermining this process. Neither party knows what to expect next. Confidence is brittle on both sides. Only four months into office, Aso’s support ratings are already dismal, one television channel giving him 17 per cent last weekend. Tokyo is preparing itself for its fourth prime minister since 2006.

The same cannot be said of China. In all likelihood, Hu Jintao will be replaced by Xi Jinping in 2012. Japan's and China's rapprochement since 2006 may not have been achieved as easily had China not been led by the relatively moderate Hu. Whether Xi Jinping will show the same level of commitment towards stabilising relations is dubious: many are concerned Xi will push a harder line of policy due to his dependence on the support of former president Jiang Zemin, who made his views of Japan clear in a stinging repudiation of Japanese interpretations of history during a Tokyo visit in 1998.

Moreover, nationalist sentiment is likely to rise on both sides once the impending economic downturn hits home, making it even more difficult for leaders to find domestic political support for the promotion of bilateral relations. Especially Chinese nationalism has a tendency to manifest itself in anti-Japanese sentiment, but the opposite occurs as well.

Japan and China have the building blocks they need to consolidate their burgeoning friendship, but decision-making requires determination and, most importantly, doing needs doers. Japan would do wisely in making the most of Hu's presidency, because the times ahead are bound to be tougher.

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