China and Japan: Things are looking up

November 17, 2015 10:21
(From left) Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe, South Korean President Park Geun-hye and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang meet in Seoul on Nov. 1. Photo: AFP

A single swallow, we are told, doesn’t make a summer. That certainly applies to the trilateral meeting in Seoul on Nov. 1 at which Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe met his counterparts, President Park Geun-hye of South Korea and Premier Li Keqiang of China.

But at the very least, the meeting – the first of its kind in more than three years – was a harbinger of a warming of relations between Japan and its two neighbors. However, the assertion in the subsequent joint declaration that trilateral cooperation “has been completely restored” may be stretching it a bit.

Japan’s relations with both South Korea and China have been strained largely because of disputes stemming from history, including Japan’s colonization of Korea from 1910 to 1945 and its invasion and occupation of large parts of China in the 1930s and 1940s.

To Koreans, the key issue is that of “comfort women”, a euphemism to describe women who were forced to serve Japanese soldiers in military brothels during World War II.

As for Sino-Japanese relations, seven decades after the end of the war, the so-called “Nanjing massacre” of 1937 is still a live issue. Last year, China’s parliament designated Dec. 13 as the day the event, which China claims took 300,000 lives, will be commemorated annually. Japan says that figure is exaggerated.

Last month, UNESCO approved China’s request to include documents of the killings in its “Memory of the World” program under which the documentary heritage of humanity is safeguarded. Japan protested and threatened to cut off funds for UNESCO.

The three countries, in their joint declaration, said that they would work to improve bilateral relations and strengthen trilateral cooperation “in the spirit of facing history squarely”. This was clearly an admonishment of Japan. It is unlikely that their understanding of what constitutes “facing history squarely” will be identical.

But at least they have decided that they will resume the holding of annual trilateral summits, which were held from 2008 to 2012.

Moreover, China and Japan also agreed to resume regular talks between their foreign ministers. A high-level economic dialogue is to be held early next year.

Both Abe and Li agreed to translate into concrete policies the 2008 joint statement, signed by Premier Yasuo Fukuda and President Hu Jintao, which declared that Japan and China are “partners who cooperate and are not threats to each other”.

They also agreed to begin the early implementation of the maritime and aerial communication mechanism between the two sides. This mechanism is designed to prevent accidental collisions or clashes between their two militaries, whose forces often operate in close proximity in the vicinity of disputed islands.

Significantly, the two sides also agreed to adhere to their 2008 agreement on joint development in the East China Sea and to demarcate the maritime boundary between their exclusive economic zones.

A meeting to discuss the specifics of joint development was scheduled in 2010 but was canceled because of high tensions at the time resulting from collisions between a Chinese fishing trawler and two Japanese coast guard vessels.

Now, it seems, the two sides are going to pick up where they left off five years ago.

Much hangs on the outcome of those discussions. Neither side is likely to back down where sovereignty is concerned. The only practical solution, therefore, is for both to share in the economic riches of the oceans in disputed areas. This was what then supreme Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping proposed in 1978.

The political disputes of recent years have spilled over into the economic realm. Bilateral trade fell in 2012 and again in 2013. According to Chinese figures, Sino-Japanese trade in 2013 fell 5.1 percent to US$312.55 billion. The level remained virtually unchanged in 2014.

Investment, too, has suffered. Statistics released by China's Ministry of Commerce said Japanese investments in the country dropped 38.8 percent year on year to US$4.33 billion in 2014, and fell 7.8 percent to US$1.44 billion between January and April this year from the same period last year. Chinese investments in Japan are on a much smaller scale.

The confidence of the Japanese business community has been shaken and investment, in particular, has been moving to other countries, such as those of Southeast Asia.

It will take considerable time and effort to reverse these trends. But if both sides follow through on what they agreed to in Seoul, then, over time, trade should pick up.

More importantly, China and Japan are such key actors that there is little hope for the future of the region if the two countries remain bogged down in the past.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.