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Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga returned this week from the recently concluded Group of Seven leaders’ summit having played an important role in getting the world’s leading democracies to take a tougher stance against China on human rights issues.

In addition to raising concerns about Hong Kong, Uyghur Muslims and China's military actions in East and Southeast Asia, the G7 leaders made an unprecedented statement stressing the importance of peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait.

Suga's Liberal Democratic Party followed that up Tuesday by adopting a resolution at a diplomacy subcommittee stating that serious human rights violations, including forced imprisonment and infringements upon religious freedom, had occurred in Tibet, Inner Mongolia and Xinjiang.

But while many in Suga’s ruling LDP welcomed the international pressure on China and are willing to criticize Beijing on its human rights record, the deteriorating bilateral relationship creates problems for the party's coalition partner, Komeito, which has long maintained good relations with China and has played a key role in Sino-Japanese ties for nearly 50 years. The resolution Tuesday passed without coordination with Komeito and was not sent to the full Diet session, which ended Wednesday.

The foundation of the current Komeito-China relationship dates to July 1972. Yoshikatsu Takeiri was the leader of Komeito, then in opposition, and a member of Soka Gakkai, the lay Buddhist group that supports the party. Takeiri flew to Beijing to meet with Chinese Premier Zhou Enlai on behalf of his friend, Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka. Soka Gakkai had long sought formal, peaceful relations between Japan and China and their effort picked up steam after U.S. President Richard Nixon normalized ties between Washington and Beijing in February 1972.

Takeiri helped pave the way for Tanaka’s September 1972 visit to China, during which the prime minister normalized relations with Beijing. In the ensuing decades, especially after Komeito tied up with the LDP in 1999 to become part of the ruling coalition, Komeito leaders served as a critical diplomatic and cultural bridge between China and LDP leaders who lacked the kind of access to Chinese leadership that Komeito and its Soka Gakkai members had — and still have — today.

“Former Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda's first visit to China in (May) 1974 has a legendary status within Soka Gakkai. In their narrative, this visit was the starting point of Ikeda's worldwide 'peace activities," said Axel Klein, a professor at the University of Duisburg-Essen Germany and an expert on Komeito.

In 2019, Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi gave a Japanese-style painting entitled "Bridge of Metal" depicting the meeting to the Zhou Enlai museum in Tianjin to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the event. The purpose, Komeito’s press release said, was to extend the friendly relationship between China and Japan into the future, he added.

Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda (second from left) asks China's President Jiang Zemin to write
Soka Gakkai President Daisaku Ikeda (second from left) asks China’s President Jiang Zemin to write “Japan-China Friendship Bridge” in Beijing in 1990. | KYODO

This relationship has benefited Komeito by giving the junior coalition partner a rare opportunity to be active on the international stage. The 2019 meeting also sent a message to China that Ikeda remained influential in guiding Komeito’s China policy.

But even though Ikeda has not been seen in public for over a decade, Komeito continues to serve as a buffer when both governments are at loggerheads with each other. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked Yamaguchi to deliver personal handwritten letters to Chinese President Xi Jinping on several occasions when relations were tense.

Masato Kamikubo, a political science professor at Ritsumeikan University, says that, despite Komeito members' personal relationships with the Chinese leadership, its influence over the LDP on China relations gradually decreased during Abe’s second tenure, which ended when he resigned in August 2020. In three Lower House elections (2012, 2014 and 2017) the LDP won nearly 300 seats, more than enough for a simple majority, making Komeito’s additional votes unnecessary to get legislation passed.

“In terms of foreign and security policy, Komeito’s influence also diminished when the government passed the security law and the conspiracy law,” he said, referring to legislation passed in 2015 and 2017, respectively.

Both laws were controversial and strongly backed by Abe but opposed by many of Komeito’s supporters. They were worried, among other things, that the security law, which Abe said was needed to counter China’s growing assertiveness, could anger Beijing.

Yet Abe also reached out to China and attempted to find areas of mutual accommodation, Kamikubo added.

“I don’t believe this is due to the influence of Komeito. Rather, I think it was in line with the demands of the business community, and it showed how the Japanese economy is highly dependent on China.”

Komeito leader Yoshikatsu Takeiri (right) meets with China's leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1981. | KYODO
Komeito leader Yoshikatsu Takeiri (right) meets with China’s leader Deng Xiaoping in Beijing in 1981. | KYODO

In 2020, Japan remained China’s top trading partner, receiving 22% of its exports. Until the COVID-19 pandemic hit, Chinese visitors accounted for the largest group of inbound tourists to Japan, with nearly 9.6 million visiting in 2019, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.

Komeito, despite being old friends with China, has not been silent on Beijing’s crackdown on Hong Kong's pro-democracy protesters in 2019 or alleged human rights violations against the Uyghurs. Antoine Roth, an assistant professor at the Faculty of Law of Tohoku University who is well-versed on Sino-Japan relations, noted that Yamaguchi expressed concern to Beijing about the situation in Hong Kong and Xinjiang during his 2019 trip.

“But the position of the party is still that human rights issues should be solved through dialogue rather than with sanctions and the like. Komeito remains reluctant to endorse any strong condemnation of China on the topic. Its position on Taiwan and China's maritime advances in the East and South China Sea is similar: Engagement and dialogue is the way to solve those issues,” Roth says.

Rising tensions between Japan and China since Suga took office in September last year have made it more difficult for both LDP and Komeito voices favoring a moderate approach to be heard, while others who are not as reluctant as Komeito to criticize China on human rights are gaining influence.

In April, 83 Diet members, including 60 from the Lower House and 23 from the Upper House, launched the Nonpartisan Parliamentary Association for Reconsidering Human Rights Diplomacy in order to more strongly condemn human rights abuses by other countries, especially China.

The association's goal was to have the Diet pass a resolution accusing China of human rights violations. Last week, the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, the Democratic Party for the People and Nippon Ishin no Kai (Japan Innovation Party) all approved it. But on Tuesday, the LDP and Komeito secretaries-general decided not to send it to the Diet.

Klein says that, in terms of its stance on China, Komeito is keeping its head down at the moment. Only one first-term Komeito member, Nobuhiro Miura from the Upper House, belongs to the new Diet group.

Roth adds that, as hawkish politicians dominate discussions within the LDP at the moment, it’s more difficult for Komeito and LDP politicians who favor closer China ties to be heard within the ruling coalition.

Powerful LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai has long been close to Komeito and has particularly good connections with the Chinese leadership. But it's unclear how much longer the 82-year-old Nikai will continue to remain in a powerful position and be able to influence government thinking on China.

“The absence of a clear successor to Nikai is one big problem for the 'pro-China' faction within the LDP," Roth said. "Yamaguchi himself has, in fact, played the role of bridge with Beijing for the whole ruling coalition in the past and will try to continue to do so. But at the moment, outside of Nikai, it's unclear who in the LDP could be his key partner.”

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