Sino-Japanese thaw: Beijing expects concessions

October 09, 2017 11:51
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzō Abe said he expected a dialogue between leaders of the two countries to promote the bilateral relationship. Photo: Reuters

Relations between China and Japan have taken a sudden turn for the better after Prime Minister Shinzō Abe paid an unprecedented visit to the Chinese embassy in Tokyo to take part in China’s national day celebrations and to mark the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two countries.

The prime minister said he expected a dialogue between leaders of the two countries to promote the bilateral relationship, Kyodo News Agency reported. The Chinese ambassador, Cheng Yonghua, who hosted the Tokyo reception, was reported as having said that the relationship was on a stable path of improvement despite various complicating factors.

In Beijing, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with the Japanese ambassador to China, Yokoi Yutaka, and said China expects more good news from Japan.

While both countries want better relations, it is clear from Wang’s words that China expects Japan to make concessions in order to improve the relationship.

He said: “We hope that the Japanese government can adopt a more positive policy towards China, take more actions that are conducive to bilateral cooperation and achieve the sound interaction of China-Japan relations instead of retreating one step after taking one step forward or even retreating two steps after taking one step forward.”

“Over the past 45 years, the China-Japan relations have achieved important progress against all odds,” Wang said. “We should cherish the dedicated efforts of the older generations of Chinese and Japanese leaders and further improve and develop China-Japan relations. This is the due historical responsibility of the two sides.”

Groundwork to bring about a thaw in relations was laid in May, when Prime Minister Abe sent a letter to President Xi Jinping, hand-carried to Beijing by Nikai Toshihiro, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party. In the letter, Abe expressed interest in joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Japan and the US are the only two major countries that have not joined the China-sponsored bank.

At the end of May, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited Japan for talks with Shotaro Yachi, head of Japan’s National Security Council. The Chinese official said that while China attaches importance to developing the bilateral relationship, Japan needs to “honor its words and abide by relevant rules regarding the historical and Taiwan issues”, as well as “safeguard the peace and stability in the East China Sea” and to “speak and act cautiously regarding the South China Sea issue”.

Professor June Teufel Dreyer of the University of Miami, an expert on Japan-China relations, has noted that Yang’s points “in effect called for a complete concession of Japan’s claims”.

Yachi did not directly address Yang’s points, saying only that Japan’s stance on Taiwan and historical issues had not changed. He also said that cooperation between Japan and China, two major countries in Asia, is vital to the region.

Specifically, China wants Japan to stop joint military exercises with the US, Tokyo’s ally, or to sell weapons to countries that may view China with suspicion. Japan wants China to stop sending ships and planes into what Japan considers its territorial waters and air space.

Another issue is China’s refusal to resume negotiations on joint gas field development in the East China Sea, something that the two countries had agreed upon in 2008.

China likes to call on Japan to learn lessons from history. As Foreign Minister Wang asserted, China wants Japan to “cherish the dedicated efforts of the older generations” of Chinese and Japanese leaders.

It might be appropriate, therefore, to recall what occurred in 1972 when then prime minister Kakuei Tanaka journeyed to Beijing to normalize relations with China. He met his Chinese counterpart, Zhou Enlai, and Chairman Mao Zedong.

At the time, Tanaka apologized for Japan’s invasion of China, but Mao told him it wasn’t necessary to apologize. In fact, Mao said the Communist Party should thank Japan because otherwise it would never have been able to overthrow the Nationalist government and gain power.

Tanaka also offered to discuss the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands issue but, again, the Chinese leaders stopped him, saying that once they started down that road they would not be able to establish diplomatic relations.

In recent years, however, China has reversed Mao’s policy of putting present relations with Japan ahead of historical issues and has repeatedly harped on Japan’s aggression of the 1930s and 1940s. China has also reversed Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping’s policy of playing down the disputed islands in favor of promoting current and future relations.

Japan, it seems, may not be the only country that needs to ponder history.

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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.