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Foreign Policy

Sino-Japanese Relations after APEC

Dec 05 , 2014
  • Feng Zhaokui

    Honorary Academician, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences

On November 10, President Xi Jinping had a “stern-faced” meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, at the latter’s request. Brief as it may have been, the meeting still captured the attention of the international community. Analysts were all curious about the direction that post-APEC China-Japan relations were heading in; and what significance the meeting will exert on bilateral relations. I believe the short Xi-Abe meeting, arranged on the sidelines of the APEC leaders’ summit, will have influence on bilateral relations in the following aspects.

First, the Xi-Abe meeting marked an important step towards improving relations between the two countries. One meeting is far from enough for the two to bridge fundamental differences on issues relating to history and territorial disputes, but the two sides importantly reached a principled consensus on “managing and controlling” their differences. The meeting is expected to play a role in defusing the simmering tensions in China-Japan relations. Former Japanese PM Yasuo Fukuda once talked about a report by a European media organization, which said that it’s highly possible a war could break out at any time between China and Japan. The Xi-Abe meeting is expected to help lower the possibility of such a scenario, and may mitigate the risks of an accidental conflict. The Xi-Abe meeting has helped navigate bilateral relations out of the risk zones of “imminent war”, at least for the coming few years (I believe between now and 2017).

However, it is a fact that deep distrust still exists between China and Japan. Such distrust has led to growing vigilance and wariness between the two sides, and has left the trend of military buildup unchecked.

Second, the Xi-Abe meeting prevented tense China-Japan ties from disturbing China’s “APEC diplomacy.” The success of China’s “APEC diplomacy” helped elevate China’s relations with major countries in the Asia-Pacific region to a new level; opened up new fields for cooperation on a series of global issues; and charted the direction and goals for Asia-Pacific cooperation. In a word, the success and achievements of the APEC meeting in Beijing could be summarized as follows: it was conducive for maintaining and augmenting vitality for dynamic economic growth in the Asia-Pacific region. This is the common interest shared and cherished by all countries in the region.

Third, the Xi-Abe meeting will play a “guiding” role in promoting dialogue and exchange at various levels and in all fields between the two countries. After the meeting, for example, Chinese and Japanese finance ministers agreed on November 15 to restart the ministerial-level dialogue that had been stalled for two years and seven months; and in mid-November, the two countries held consultations on the resumption of building China-Japan maritime liaison mechanism. These moves were made on the heels of the Xi-Abe meeting. On November 12, China and the United States published a joint announcement on climate change. I believe that China and Japan should follow suit by launching a dialogue between the environmental departments of the two nations as early as possible, and reaching an agreement on climate change and issues related to regional environmental pollution.

Fourth, the Xi-Abe meeting, which helped ease tensions in China-Japan relations, will also have an impact on the right-wing trend in Japan. Right-wing forces have always instigated and pushed domestic politics to the right by citing the so-called “China threat theory.” Their ulterior motives are to deny the fruits of the anti-fascist war, overturn the verdicts of the International Military Tribunal for the Far East, damage the post-war international order, and relive past dreams of Japanese militarists. Obviously, if the China-Japan relationship remains tense, it will be easier for the right-wing activists to manipulate the sentiment. On the contrary, any easing or warm-up in China-Japan relations would deal a blow to right-wing forces.

Fifth, the Xi-Abe meeting raised hope among the Chinese and Japanese people, as well as the international community, who have been anticipating an end to the freezing political ties that “could not be worse”.

Although the percentage of Chinese and Japanese citizens with good feelings or affinity towards each other has plummeted in recent years to a record low since the resumption of diplomatic relations, the proportion of Chinese and Japanese nationals who believe that China-Japan relations are “important” continues to hover at a level as high as 70-80 percent. Prior to the Xi-Abe meeting, a poll by NHK on August 9-10 showed that 55 percent of those surveyed said it was necessary to hold a summit meeting between China and Japan as early as possible. The Xi-Abe meeting played well in mainstream public opinion, which has high hopes for the two governments to attach importance to and improve their relations.

And sixth, easing the tense China-Japan relations is also in line with the new trends in the Asian security situation. With the relations eased, China and Japan could devote more diplomatic resources and efforts to focus on unconventional global security issues, such as climate change, terrorism, the control and prevention of epidemic diseases and the aftermath of the Fukushima nuclear accident. Just as some Chinese scholars said, some hot topics in the mass media and among the public merit attention and vigilance. Some people show deep concern about the East China Sea and South China Sea issues, as if the issues will never be settled without a war with Japan and the Philippines. In fact, however, the biggest and most imminent security threat we will face is looming over the land, and such a threat would probably be more detrimental. ISIS is thriving and controlling more areas, and is even threatening to “drown America in blood.” We should not take a laissez-faire attitude, because terrorist threats fanned by religious extremism are a global issue. We should always stay vigilant. Therefore, the focal point of our national security should not only be pinned on the East China Sea and South China Sea issues, and it should be an urgent task to ease tensions in China-Japan relations.

Due to the recent unstable domestic political situation, Abe, repeatedly spoke and acted in a way that was not constructive to the implementation of the principled consensus reached during the Xi-Abe meeting. I believe, however, that easing tensions in China-Japan relations is what the public wants, and is an inevitable trend. Anyone who wants to deny or jettison the principled consensus of the Xi-Abe meeting would be denounced and discarded by the Chinese and Japanese people as well as the international community.

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