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Regional tensions cast long shadow

With U.S. focus elsewhere, Japan-China friction unnerves Asia

by Takashi Kitazume

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Closer cooperation among Japan, the United States and China is seen as essential for security worldwide not just in Asia. But is that possible with Japan and China at loggerheads over issues linked to history like Yasukuni Shrine?

While increasingly worried about tensions between Tokyo and Beijing, the United States remains too preoccupied with the Middle East to devote enough attention to Asia and may even become more divided and inward-looking as it heads for the 2008 presidential election.

And will Japan and the U.S. be able to maintain the close relationship after the exit of the current leaders who are said to have built up unprecedented mutual trust?

These were among the questions discussed and assessments presented by Japanese, American and Chinese experts in the May 23 symposium, “A dialogue for the peace and stability in East Asia — What our future trilateral relationships should be like,” organized by Keizai Koho Center at Keidanren Kaikan in Tokyo.

Just before the symposium, the same participants — scholars and former senior government officials — held a three-day closed meeting in Gotenba, Shizuoka Prefecture, in the second round of a trilateral dialogue initiated last year by two American think tanks — the Brookings Institution and the Center for Strategic and International Studies — jointly with Keizai Koho Center and Peking University.

According to Jeffrey Bader, director of the China Initiative and senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, the U.S. think tanks proposed the dialogue out of concern over the deteriorating relationship between Japan and China, which they saw as endangering American interests in Asia.

The first round of the dialogue was held in Beijing a few months after massive anti-Japanese demonstrations hit Chinese streets in the spring of 2005. After the next round of the discussions later this year, members of the trilateral dialogue will compile a report of recommendations to their respective governments, Bader said.

“It’s impossible to conceive of a stable Asia in the 21st century if the relationship between Japan and China is hostile,” said Bader, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs.

While the U.S. sees its security alliance with Japan as a linchpin of stability in Asia, it also seeks a positive relationship with China, the emerging power, he told the audience, adding that good Tokyo-Beijing ties are essential to these U.S. goals.

Despite expanding economic ties, the political relationship between Japan and China has chilled in recent years as Beijing protested Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s annual visits since 2001 to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s Class-A war criminals along with the nation’s war dead, and refused to hold top-level dialogue with Tokyo.

Yasukuni is one of the issues linked to Japan’s wartime aggression against China that still haunt bilateral relations. Japan, for its part, has expressed alarm over China’s military buildup backed by its rising economic power. The two countries are also engaged in a dispute over gas and oil exploration in the East China Sea.

China meanwhile is building bridges with the U.S., with President Hu Jintao visiting Washington for talks with his U.S. counterpart George W. Bush in April — following Bush’s trip to Beijing in November.

Middle East distractions

The chill in Japan-China political relations comes at a time when, according to Kurt Campbell, senior vice president of the CSIS, attention and resources of U.S. foreign policy makers remain focused largely on Iraq and other Mideast affairs.

“What that means is that we will not have as much attention as we might like to devote to Asia . . . in terms of the energy, time and resources that are required to manage such a complicated region,” Campbell said.

Campbell, a former U.S. deputy assistant secretary of defense for Asia and the Pacific, also predicted that given the difficulties that have hampered American strategies in Iraq, the U.S. through the 2008 presidential election will be “more inward-looking and divided domestically” — in contrast to the “confident and strategically outgoing” America of the past few years.

Campbell said the U.S. does not consider the rise of China as a major challenge to American interests in Asia, noting that Washington has achieved a “generally good and workmanlike” relationship with Beijing.

Rather, he went on, the biggest challenge confronting the U.S. and Japan today is their troubled relations with South Korea.

He described Washington-Seoul and Tokyo-Seoul ties as perhaps “at their lowest point in history,” saying the situation further complicates international efforts to stop North Korea’s suspected nuclear weapons program.

Campbell said Japan-U.S. relations dramatically improved under Prime Minister Koizumi and President Bush in ways that were perhaps never seen in bilateral ties — backed by deep trust between the top leaders as well as a close working-level relationship in the bureaucracy on both sides.

But many of the key architects and players in this bureaucratic relationship, such as former Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage and Michael Green, a former senior director for Asian affairs at the National Security Council, have left the Bush administration in its second term, he pointed out.

And Koizumi is leaving office in September, when his final term as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party expires.

“Now the key of course will be what happens this fall when we have a turnover between Prime Minister Koizumi and his successor . . . and (in two years) when a new leader will come to power in the United States as well,” Campbell said. “It’s possible that we’re in a situation where we are not as close, at the top and down through the layers bureaucratically.”

Wang Jisi, dean of the School of International Studies at Peking University, said the years to 2008 will also be a period of political changes for China, with a Communist Party congress scheduled sometime toward the end of 2007 and Beijing busy preparing for the 2008 Olympic Games.

“You will see more adjustment to policies and more efforts to work for the better,” Wang told the audience.

Together with the leadership changes in Japan and the U.S., “I hope these political changes will pave the way for a more constructive trilateral relationship . . . and a more stabilized East Asia,” Wang said.

Friends and foes

Wang said the relationships with Japan and the U.S. are the “two most important, but the two most difficult and sensitive relationships China has in global affairs.”

As the two largest economies in the world, “they are the most important economic partners for China. If China wants to be modernized, these two partners are the most important ones,” he said.

But they are also the countries with which China fought wars over the past decades, “‘so we have to solve these problems in order to pave the way for China’s modernization and economic prosperity,” he added.

“The history issue is very important for China. . . . We will never forget the bitter experience and the humiliation China suffered during the Sino-Japanese war more than 60 years ago, and historical memories will be there for a long time to come.

“But nobody I know in China thinks that the present generations in Japan should be held responsible for what happened in the past,” he said. “There are a number of ways to prevent the shadow of the past from becoming the shadow of the future.”

Yukio Okamoto, a former special adviser to Prime Ministers Koizumi and Ryutaro Hashimoto, acknowledged that Japan-China relations today “may be the most destabilizing factor” in Asia, which he said has maintained relative stability in recent years.

Aside from the history issues, what’s fundamentally important is for Japan and China to adapt to the reality of China’s indisputable rise as a giant in Asia, Okamoto said.

Japan should not negatively react to China becoming a major power while China should not stage a zero-sum game against Japan in Asia, said the former career diplomat.

China’s campaign among Asian and African countries to oppose Japan’s bid for a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council “was a typical zero-sum game,” he charged.

Okamoto shared the view of most of the panelists that a favorable Japan-China relationship is the cornerstone of stability in East Asia. Still, he said he does not foresee Japan and China reaching a comprehensive agreement on a host of bilateral issues in the immediate future.

Instead, Japan and China should start by working together with the U.S. and other interested parties to deal with global and multinational issues, such as Iraq and Iran, he said.

The two countries coordinating their views and jointly working for a solution may help them resolve their outstanding bilateral issues as well, he added.

Masashi Nishihara, a former president of the National Defense Academy, argued that Japan should not cave in to pressures from China on bilateral disputes in its pursuit of a stable relationship with Beijing.

“The question,” he said, “is whether it is stability obtained by bowing to pressures from China or stability achieved by Japan maintaining its position.”

Nishihara dismissed China’s protests over Koizumi’s Yasukuni visits as “interference in Japan’s domestic affairs” and urged Beijing instead to stop provocative acts that create fresh tensions, such as incursions by Chinese submarines into Japanese waters.

Nishihara said he was rather pessimistic of dramatic improvement in the political relationship between the two countries in the near future, although he predicted that economic ties — in which China surpassed the U.S. as Japan’s largest trading partner last year — will continue to move ahead.

But Qin Yaqing, vice president of the China Foreign Affairs University, said the so-called “politically cold and economically warm” relationship between the two countries will not be sustainable.

“If political relations between the two countries continue to be bad, even to worsen, it will have very negative impacts” on other aspects of bilateral ties, he told the audience.

“I think we cannot avoid the history issue. . . . We all agree that we cannot be tied up by history, we must have a forward-looking vision, we must look at the future, no doubt about that,” he said, noting that China’s economic reform has benefited from assistance from Japan after normalization of diplomatic ties in the 1970s.

“But if we really want to have a good new healthy start, we must squarely face the history issue,” he said.

Qin said Yasukuni has become “the present bottleneck that must be overcome” because the Japanese prime minister’s visits “hurt the feelings of Chinese people” who experienced Japan’s military invasion before and during World War II — even though many Japanese say the issue is about praying for Japan’s war dead and is therefore a domestic matter.

“If we cannot solve this, this will have a lasting negative impact on the two countries and the region,” he said.

Ignoring East Asia

On the prospects of improving dialogue and coordination among Japan, the U.S. and China, Campbell of the CSIS said that at some point the three countries “must cross the Rubicon and find a way” to orchestrate a trilateral meeting.

And the U.S. should reclaim its role as a member of Northeast Asia — along with Japan, China, South Korea and Russia — rather than focusing its diplomatic efforts on terrorist threats in Southeast Asia, he told the audience.

Okamoto shared Campbell’s concern about the insufficient U.S. diplomatic attention on Asia in recent years. It is important for the Middle East situation to stabilize as quickly as possible so that Washington can channel more of its time and resources to Asia, he said.

America’s involvement in Asia is essential for Japan because maintaining the alliance with the U.S. is the only viable choice for Tokyo to ensure its security in the region, he said.

“It’s absolutely necessary for the U.S. to squarely face problems in East Asia,” he said. “Until that happens, any efforts taken for stability in Asia will be transient in nature . . . to somehow maintain the status quo.”

But Okamoto also acknowledged that Asia itself has changed while the U.S. was turning its focus elsewhere and Japan also lagged behind the region’s rapid progress.

“Japan does not have the favorable relations with the rest of Asia as it did in the 1980s . . . due to a series of issues, including those related to history,” he said as he noted how Japan’s presence in the region has dwindled in recent years.

As Japan works to regain respect as one of the most important players in the region, the nation must realize that Asia may no longer need Japan to lead the way, Okamoto said. Asia is moving forward with or without Japan, and unless Japan starts to squarely face Asia, the nation may be left behind by the rapidly progressing region, he warned.