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Foreign Policy

Finding Ways for “Deadlocked” China-Japan Relations

Oct 22 , 2013
  • Feng Zhaokui

    Honorary Academician, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

In September, Chinese President Xi Jinping met Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe while attending the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg. During a brief talk, Xi told Abe that China-Japan relations have recently faced grave difficulties, which “we are unwilling to see.” Why did President Xi say this? This writer believes that such a situation in China-Japan relations does not conform to President Xi’s diplomatic vision. 

Feng Zhaokui

President Xi Jinping pointed out that a correct conception on principles and benefits should be upheld in diplomacy, and should abide by the principles of mutual benefit in order to achieve a win-win situation. 

Since Japan began the “nationalization” of the Diaoyu Islands in 2012, rows between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands have escalated, and relations have deteriorated to the point of crisis. Such a dispute is, apparently, a “loss-loss” situation to both countries, although the Chinese feel that the situation was caused by the Japanese position. No doubt, such a “loss-loss” situation runs counter to the diplomatic concept of “abiding by mutual benefit and achieving a win-win situation,” as President Xi advocated. 

On diplomacy with neighboring countries, President Xi called to uphold the principles of “building friendship and partnership with neighboring countries” and “living in harmony with and extending mutual assistance” to neighboring countries. With China-Japan relations deteriorating, however, official exchanges between the countries have been lowered to a minimum, and non-official exchanges and communication have also been significantly affected, which has led to the current situation of “being neighbors but not partners.” Such a situation is far from the vision of “building friendship and partnership with neighboring countries.” At the same time, the feelings of the two peoples towards each other have also dropped to the lowest level in history, and this is against the vision of “living in harmony and extending mutual assistance.” This is the situation that China is unwilling to see. 

On global issues, President Xi stressed that China, as a responsible big country, will contribute more effort and wisdom in dealing with global challenges such as climate change, cybersecurity, anti-terrorism and anti-pirates. In particular he suggested taking a highly responsible attitude towards tackling climate change, and stressed that “it is a global challenge to protect the ecological environment, tackle climate change and defend energy and resources security.” Scientists have already confirmed that the sea has a massive capacity to absorb heat and carbon dioxide. Therefore, it will be of great significance to make the East China Sea into a sea of peace, cooperation and ecology, and to increase the sea’s capacity in reducing the impact of climate change. Since Japan’s move to “nationalize” the Diaoyu Islands, however, rows between China and Japan surrounding the islands have escalated, and the sea lying between the two countries now seems to have become a sea of conflict and animosity. Furthermore, the radioactive water leak from the Fukushima nuclear plant into the sea further polluted the sea. For China, this is unacceptable. 

In order to change the current situation, this author has the following suggestions to offer: 

First, due to the complexity in China-Japan relations, it is recommended that we set up a special group of scholars and experts from both countries with inter-disciplinary backgrounds (we may also consider inviting experts from South Korea and the United States into the group) to study and draft plans for improving China-Japan relations, which will be submitted to the top decision-makers of both countries for consideration. 

Second, the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has warned that it is urgent and imperative to tackle the issue of global warming. China and Japan must take immediate actions to vigorously promote cooperation in tackling such global issues as climate change and regional environmental issues such as the serious haze and smog in China and the nuclear leak in Japan. There are disputes between China and Japan and there are also disagreements between China and the United States, but in an era where there are more grave challenges for humanity, shouldn’t these disputes be settled in order to tackle these more serious challenges? 

Third, both sides should work together to promote an early “recovery” in economic and trade relations. There is no doubt that economic and trade relations are a disaster. China and Japan should not, due to the dispute over the islands, adopt erroneous policies such as “punishing the other side even at the sacrifice of one’s own interests.” Although the Chinese and Japanese governments have not taken “economic sanctions” against each other, they have adopted laissez-faire attitudes towards the retreat of bilateral economic and trade relations. This has not only had a negative impact on economic and trade activities between the two countries, but also led to a breakdown of the global industrial chain, in which China and Japan used to have a good division of work in the global manufacturing chain.

Fourth, both sides should work together to promote a recovery in the tourism industry. The worsening bilateral relations have led to a sharp decline in the number of visiting tourists, with a huge economic loss. Tourism has a political significance in promoting mutual understanding between the two peoples. Among the Japanese, a lack of good feelings towards China, as well as misunderstanding about China among its citizens, will only serve the needs of politicians who, for their own political interest, are unwilling to see an improved relationship with China. This has the potential to escalate, leading to a situation in which Japan’s foreign policy towards China is manipulated by politicians that are unwilling to see improvements in relations. 

Fifth, exchanges between localities are also an important foundation for sound China-Japan relations. There are more than 200 pairs of sister cities between the two countries that should be put into full play, so as to promote more exchanges to meet their actual needs. For instance, cooperation between Beijing and Tokyo on environmental protection can play an exemplary role in such exchanges. The recent establishment of the Shanghai Free Trade Zone is also a good opportunity for Shanghai to conduct exchange with Japanese cities. 

Feng Zhaokui is honorary academician of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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