Building better Japan-China relations

by Frank Ching

HONG KONG — The deterioration of China-Japan relations during the five years of Junichiro Koizumi’s premiership has been reversed, but concrete progress needs to be made if the dramatic improvement in relations in the last 14 months is to be sustainable.

Already, both sides have made serious efforts to improve relations, beginning with the visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing in October 2006, followed by the visit by Premier Wen Jiabao to Japan last spring.

Also being planned is an exchange of visits by Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Chinese President Hu Jintao, most likely in the early part of next year. Those visits would take place on the 30th anniversary of the signing of a peace and friendship treaty by the two countries.

Significantly, the treaty was signed on the Japanese side by the then prime minister, Takeo Fukuda, father of the current leader.

Such symbolism is important to China, and Premier Wen Jiabao, when he met with Fukuda last week in Singapore at the third East Asia Summit, publicly mentioned this fact. The hope is that Fukuda will carry on his father’s work and raise Sino-Japanese relations to a new level.

The two sides have reached consensus on some sensitive issues such as the handling of Taiwan and historical issues, construction of a strategic and mutually beneficial relationship, and achievement of the goal of “peaceful coexistence, friendship for generations, mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.”

In fact, public sentiment in both countries has shifted significantly since the improvement in governmental relations.

According to a joint poll conducted by a Japanese and Chinese company in August, 33.1 percent of Japanese respondents viewed China favorably, compared to 12 percent the previous year. As for Chinese, 24.4 percent viewed Japan favorably, up from 14 percent.

These figures reflect changing images of Japan in the minds of the Chinese public. In 2005 and 2006, when Chinese students were asked “What first comes to mind when you think of Japan?” the top answer was the “Nanjing Massacre” of 1937. This year, however, the first answer was cherry blossoms, with the Nanjing Massacre coming in second.

Clearly, the alteration in public opinion reflects shifts on the parts of the two governments. This means that the recent positive trend can easily be reversed unless there is continued improvement in governmental relations.

The Japanese side is attempting to ensure a good environment by issuing guidance to the media so that bilateral relations are not injured by careless reporting. On its part, China is in an even better position to ensure the positive behavior of its media.

The high-level visits planned for early 2008 are part of the effort to continue to improve the relationship. But such symbolism needs to be bolstered by actual progress. For that reason, China and Japan will open their first high-level economic dialogue in Beijing on Dec. 1.

This meeting, whose theme is “Cooperation, Win-Win and Coordinated Development,” is meant to provide a platform for the exchange of economic development strategies and economic policies. It will also be an opportunity for the discussion of bilateral economic concerns.

It will focus on macroeconomic issues, energy conservation and environmental protection, trade and investment, and regional and international cooperation.

Since China replaced the United States as Japan’s biggest trading partner last year, there will be a lot to discuss. This relationship is crucial to both countries and political obstacles must be resolved through deft diplomacy and not be allowed to sour the relationship.

Currently, the main problem is the demarcation of the East China Sea because of the oil and gas resources beneath the seabed. The two sides have held 11 rounds of talks on their overlapping claims, with the latest one Nov. 14, but with little progress. In principle, they have agreed that the solution is joint development, but there appears to be no agreement beyond that.

It is clear that negotiators at the working level are unable to make a breakthrough. So it is encouraging that the economic dialogue will be conducted at ministerial level, since that increases the chances of success.

China apparently holds the upper hand because the Chinese are believed to have successfully mapped the entire seabed area and knows which sites are more likely to be productively exploited while the Japanese do not have this information.

Eventually, the matter may not be resolved until the leaderships on the two sides get involved, since there is a need for both sides to demonstrate the political will to settle the issue.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based journalist and commentator.