BEIJING – A leading Chinese expert on Japanese affairs is predicting a gradual improvement in relations between Asia’s two biggest economies after this Sunday’s Upper House election, regardless of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s hawkish political beliefs.
“It is welcoming for China that there will be political stability,” Yang Bojiang, a deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, predicting Abe’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and junior coalition partner New Komeito will win a majority in the poll.
Yang said in a recent interview that he expects Abe to make no compromises on the sovereignty of a group of islets in the East China Sea known as the Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. But at the same time, Yang said, “whether he likes or not,” Abe is likely to come under pressure from the private sector and a range of other quarters to water down the current difficult situation after the election.
The dispute over the uninhabited islets flared anew last September when the then-ruling Democratic Party of Japan effectively nationalized the territory, which Japan laid claim to in 1895. Settling the matter will not be simple and will require significant time, he said.
“Diplomacy is about minimizing friction and effectively controlling problems, not just trying to clear them up,” the 48-year-old scholar said, while proposing China and Japan take “economic cooperation” as a cue to lay the ground for mending bilateral ties, as business entities of the two countries have become increasingly interdependent.
On the chance of resuming high-level political contacts, Yang said the idea would gain traction if Abe could send clear signals that he intends to start “sincere” discussions on issues important to both nations, including those related to the islets.
The scholar said he does not exclude the possibility of Abe and the new Chinese leadership holding face-to-face talks for the first time on the sidelines of the summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in early October in Indonesia or at other multilateral gatherings scheduled later this year.
No official talks between the nations’ top leaders have been held since May 2012 in Beijing, largely because of simmering conflicts over which country controls the Senkakus.
During any meeting, the leaders couldn’t avoid discussing issues related to the islets, but they wouldn’t have to specify what kinds of problems they are grappling with, Yang said.
Given that China and Japan already know each other’s position, and that huge differences in views over sovereignty remain, he suggested Abe refrain from defining the issues, in order to create an environment for political dialogue.
If Abe’s LDP-led coalition secures a majority in the Upper House, following its landslide victory in last December’s House of Representatives election, there is lingering speculation that Abe, who would not necessaryly need to call a general election until 2016, may visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on the Aug. 15 anniversary of the nation’s surrender in World War II.
Yang said relations between the two countries would be irrecoverable if Abe visits Yasukuni, where convicted Japanese war criminals are enshrined, as well as Japan’s war dead.
The shrine is regarded, especially by China and South Korea, as a symbol of Japan’s militarist past.
“However, I personally believe that Prime Minister Abe will not visit the shrine,” he said. “Because if he does, not only with China, Japan’s ties with South Korea, (which are also frayed by a territorial dispute over different islets), would be hopeless.”
Yang said one of the most fundamental points to watch for China is whether Abe’s government will be stable and continue to enjoy today’s high approval ratings, even if it remains in power for a long period.
“I have some reservations as to the stability,” he said, noting the possibility that public support for Abe’s government could dwindle if many citizens feel no real economic recovery in the coming months.