After staying in power for only three years, Japan’s Democratic Party lost the parliament election to the Liberal Democratic Party. The Yoshihiko Noda cabinet, which got itself in dire straits both domestically and in foreign affairs in the past year, has left a hard nut for the incoming Shinzo Abe administration to crack – the improvement of Sino-Japanese relations.
When he begins his new term of premiership at the beginning of 2013, Abe is faced with a chance of improving ties with China. In 2006, he made significant contribution to the improvement of bilateral relationship with his “ice-breaking” trip to China after he became Japanese prime minister for the first time. Now he said once again that he will seek a thaw of the deadlocked ties between the two countries. The so-called government “purchase” of the Diaoyu Islands, which led to the deterioration of the Sino-Japanese relations, was the deed of the Noda administration. There is no need for the Abe cabinet to let the conflict escalate. And he stands a good chance to make some readjustment on the issue, because he needn't worry much about the pressure from the rightists after the LDP won a steadfast majority in the lower house. The Japanese people, especially the business circles, hope the relations with China improve rather than further deteriorate.
The year 2013 marks the 35th anniversary of the signing of the Peace Treaty between China and Japan. It gives both nations a good opportunity to reaffirm their commitment to the Treaty and keep their relationship on the right track. The year also marks the beginning of the newly-elected leaders’ term of office in China, Japan and the Republic of Korea. How they will act at this beginning period in advancing their respective country’s political, economic and social development will significantly impact the long and medium-term prospects of peace, stability and prosperity in East Asia. The people of the three countries all expect their leaders to demonstrate goodwill to each other after taking office. Such an attitude, they hope, will inject some positive energy into Northeast Asia.
However, there are worrying factors in the Sino-Japanese relations. During Noda’s term of office, the dispute over the Diaoyu Islands caused an emotional confrontation between the two nations and a security crisis escalated. In his election campaign, Abe argued that Japan should keep government personnel residing on the Diaoyu Islands. His hard-line proposals are not much different from the ideas of Shintaro Ishihara and other rightists. Once adopted by the new cabinet, these proposals would lead to more serious consequences.
Abe’s attitude on some historical issues, such as the Yasukuni shrine, also caused worries in Japan’s neighboring countries. Whether his China-policy will push the political and economic wheels of the Sino-Japanese relationship forward will not only depends on Abe personally but will also be affected by the right-turning of politics inside Japan. The Abe administration will most likely push for a revision of the Constitution after the senate election in July next year. The revision will start with the changing of Article 96 of the Constitution, which stipulates that a two thirds majority in both lower and upper houses is needed for sanctioning a revision. The clause is expected to be changed to requiring only more than half of the votes. The passing of this change will pave the way for changing Article 9 of the Constitution, which states that “the Japanese people forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation and the threat or use of force as means of settling international disputes. To accomplish the aim of the preceding paragraph, land, sea, and air forces, as well as other war potential, will never be maintained. The right of belligerency of the state will not be recognized.” Any change to this article will bear upon the strategic concern about whether Japan will keep to the road of peaceful development.
In his thought on Japan’s strategy towards China, Abe takes China as the top concern with regard to Japan’s foreign relations and security in the 21st century. He tries to seek more allies by strengthening the US-Japan alliance and making use of China’s geopolitical conflicts with neighboring countries. This may please the hardliners in the United States. Abe plans to visit the United States in late January as the first foreign country he will visit after taking office as the prime minister. Most likely he will discuss with the American leaders how to deal with China in a coordinated move and find out how the US will react if Japan takes further steps on the issue of Diaoyu Islands. Only with these questions straightened out, can Abe decide what to do next on the Diaoyu Islands issue. Therefore, in a certain sense, the US is the most important external factor in Japan’s consideration of its foreign policy towards China. However, this doesn't mean that Japan will follow the US’ attitude unconditionally on the Diaoyu Islands issue. It will not accept the US’ advice if it thinks the idea goes against its interests. For instance, the US states that the problem with the Diaoyu Islands’ ownership is unsolved and that the dispute between China and Japan over territorial sovereignty should be settled through dialogues and negotiations. To this, Japan gives not an iota of heed. Instead, it repeatedly asks the US to acknowledge that Article 5 of the Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security between Japan and the United States is applicable to the Diaoyu Islands. If the US reaffirms this acknowledgement during Abe’s visit and acquiesces at Abe’s plan to station government personnel on the Diaoyu Islands, the Abe cabinet will mostly likely take provocative action against China on the Diaoyu Islands. Once the Sino-Japanese relationship takes a drastic turn for the worse, the US will inevitably be involved in and finally pay a price for it.
However, the worry may prove to be unwarranted. Now the previous tacit understanding between China and Japan for shelving the territorial dispute has been broken and the so-called effective administrative jurisdiction by Japan over the Diaoyu Islands and its surrounding waters has become nonexistent since Chinese marine surveillance ships have begun patrols of the area on a regular basis. Moreover, the US regards the Diaoyu Islands’ ownership as undetermined. Therefore, Article 5 of the US-Japan treaty is not applicable to the Diaoyu Islands at all whether in legal sense or in reality. Both the US and Japan should seriously abide by the treaty’s Article 1, namely: “The Parties undertake, as set forth in the Charter of the United Nations, to settle any international disputes in which they may be involved by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security and justice are not endangered and to refrain in their international relations from the threat or use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any state, or in any other manner inconsistent with the purposes of the United Nations.” And remember, the US does not recognize Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the Diaoyu Islands.
Abe said that interests take precedence over other considerations in the “Sino-Japanese strategic relationship of mutual benefit” while friendship is just the means. The meaning behinds his words is that Japan can give up friendship for the sake of its own interests and that it will adopt an uncompromising and unfriendly attitude towards China. Such a philosophy that sets friendship and interests in opposition to each other is narrow-minded. It lacks a right understanding of the true essence of diplomacy in the new era, without which one cannot turn confrontation into mutual benefit. In fact, the move taken by China and Japan in early 1970s to terminate the state of war between them and begin a peaceful and friendly relationship was in itself the most fundamental common interests between the two countries. Otherwise, they would have not entered into a peace treaty, namely the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Now, some conflicts in local interests have caused impact to the foundation of Sino-Japanese friendship. If the two countries failed to strike a balance between interests and friendship, the strategic relationship of mutual benefit would be robbed of its soul and the partial conflicts could even escalate into a strategic confrontation.
Whether Abe will grasp and make good use of current opportunities is still uncertain. Let’s wait and see.
Liu Jiangyong is vice-president of Institute of Modern International Relations, Tsinghua University and Chinese member on the 21st Century Committee for Sino-Japanese Friendship