Yasuhiro Nakasone, the eighth longest-serving prime minister of Japan, passed away last Friday, bringing to close a life of more than a century. U.S. President Ronald Reagan used to call him “Yasu,” but many in Japan still call him, with admiration and awe, (the holder of) “the Supreme Order of the Chrysanthemum.”
The front-page headline of The Japan Times on the news of his death was “Nakasone: political titan who spanned eras.” The New York Times noted that Nakasone “called for a stronger military and a larger global role for Japan and was one of the few Japanese leaders to win recognition on the world stage.”
U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo officially expressed his deepest condolences to the Nakasone family and the people of Japan. His statement read, “Prime Minister Nakasone was a courageous leader at a critical juncture for Japan and a trusted friend of the United States,” and “As a great statesman, his efforts to improve relations with neighboring countries … have had a lasting impact on the international community.” President Donald Trump later expressed similar admiration for the late Japanese leader.
Now I have some simple questions. If Nakasone were prime minister again, how would he deal with China now? Would he publicly support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement or enact a Japanese version of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act? And, ultimately, would he cancel Chinese President Xi Jinping’s state visit to Japan?
My answers are not as simple as my questions. If he were prime minister now, Nakasone might neither publicly support the students in Hong Kong nor try to enact a new law that might interfere with China’s internal affairs. He would probably not cancel Xi’s state visit, either. The following are the reasons why:
1. Nakasone was a pragmatist
When Nakasone was prime minister, I was a junior officer at the Middle East Bureau of the Foreign Ministry. In those days, every instruction coming from the Prime Minister’s Office always got to the point. He was the first Japanese prime minister since 1945 who really had profound strategic insights.
Nonetheless, Nakasone’s efforts to improve Japan-China relations were half eclipsed by his controversial “official” visit to Yasukuni Shrine on Aug. 15, 1985. Facing sharp criticism from China, as The New York Times then reported, the prime minister eventually had to “call off another visit to the shrine, hoping to avoid prolonging the controversy.”
2. The Japan-China relations are a dependent variable
In the mid-1980s, relations between Japan and China were much better than now. Nakasone, a die-hard conservative but simultaneously a very pragmatic politician, was later quoted as saying that he had stopped visiting Yasukuni Shrine in order to protect his close friend in China, Hu Yaobang, who was then chairman of the Chinese Communist Party.
China’s strategic adversary has been and will continue to be the United States. Whether one likes it or not, Japan-China relations are merely a dependent variable of the U.S.-China relationship. In other words, what Japan can expect from China is to tactically improve its bilateral relationship with Beijing rather than to achieve a strategic rapprochement.
3. Hong Kong is one of the two systems of one country
The result of Hong Kong’s local district council elections last week was stunning. Out of 452 seats contested this time, pro-democracy candidates won 388 seats, a landslide victory over the pro-Beijing camp. Just a few days later, the U.S. enacted the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act.
Does the act constitute interference with China’s internal affairs? Technically no, since it only requires an annual report on the validity of the “One country, two systems” agreement that China had made. Politically, however, the answer is yes, and no prime minister in Tokyo could either officially support Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement or enact a relevant law in Japan.
4. Saving “face” is sometimes more important than substance
Empirically speaking, Beijing has always placed most importance on summit meetings and state visits, simply because they involve the highest-ranking leader of the CCP. Once Chinese party or state bureaucrats start working on a state visit, for example, they get much easier to handle since they are not allowed to fail in the state visit.
In the history of Japan-China relations, therefore, the top leaders’ visits to Japan or China have always been successful. This is simply because the Chinese bureaucracy would rather spontaneously cancel the state visits if they see a growing possibility that a visit may end up becoming a fiasco.
5. Should Tokyo rescind its invitation to Xi to be a state guest?
It ultimately depends on what the goal is of canceling the visit. If Tokyo wishes, by canceling the state visit, to urge Beijing to change its policies on trade, the Senkaku Islands, Hong Kong or any other outstanding issues, the effort is doomed to fail. The end result of this approach would either be to infuriate Beijing or to discourage China to make a deal — or probably both.
In contrast, once the schedule of the visit is fixed but some outstanding issues remain, the Chinese bureaucrats tend to be more flexible in making concessions on substance as long as they save face in the end. For example, whom they meet sometimes seems to be more important for the Chinese side than what to talk about.
Thus, a patriotic but pragmatic prime minister like Nakasone would never try to show Japan’s displeasure by canceling Xi’s state visit that is scheduled to take place next spring. If Nakasone were prime minister now, he would most likely try to urge the Chinese side to soften its positions from behind the scenes.
If Tokyo is not happy with what Beijing is doing in Hong Kong, Xinjiang or elsewhere, it must pressure China during the consultations for the state visit. If lucky, it might win good concessions. If not, it’s better to allow the Chinese to cancel the trip rather than rescind the invitation. Let China take responsibility for an imaginary but failed state visit.
Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies.