China to Japan: Work harder if you want to be my friend

January 29, 2018 16:17
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe has voiced the hope that his country would be able to host this year a Japan-China-South Korea summit at which Chinese Premier Li Keqiang would be present. Photo: Bloomberg

The visit by Japan's foreign minister to Beijing over the weekend marks the first tangible sign of progress in Sino-Japanese relations since both countries indicated last year an interest in ending the state of virtual hostility that has persisted since 2012, when China halted normal relations in the wake of Japan's nationalization of islands disputed by the two countries.

The talks between Foreign Minister Taro Kono and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, reflected Japan's pursuit of improved relations, and a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the Chinese.

Last week, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe delivered a policy address in which he voiced the hope of Japan and China working together "to meet the growing infrastructure demand in Asia", an allusion to Japanese willingness to take part in the China-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank that was boycotted by the United States, Japan's ally.

Mr. Abe voiced the hope that his country would be able to host this year a Japan-China-South Korea summit at which Premier Li Keqiang would be present.

At the Kono-Wang meeting, the Japanese official made it clear that Japan wants movement "to improve overall ties this year". Kono was able to deliver an invitation in person to Premier Li when he saw that gentleman on Sunday.

Such trilateral meetings are meant to be held annually, with rotating hosts, but the schedule was disrupted after 2012 when China’s furious response to the Japanese government's purchase of uninhabited islands in an attempt to head off turmoil with China but which had the opposite effect.

The Japanese also hope that China will invite their prime minister to a state visit, after which Japan would invite President Xi Jinping to make a reciprocal state visit to Japan. However, little progress was made on this issue.

The Chinese foreign minister acknowledged "positive remarks" by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for the furtherance of Japan-China relations. He said that China wished to see Japan "put its words into action". So, it seems, Japan has to work harder if it wants improved relations with China.

But on the trilateral meeting, China and Japan agreed that such a summit should be held as early as possible.

China is keenly conscious that Japan is America’s closest ally in Asia and has always been interested in driving a wedge into that relationship whenever possible. It has also been creating difficulties in Japan-South Korea relations that would reduce the effectiveness of the American alliance.

Thus, when President Moon Jai-in of South Korea questioned the legitimacy of the "final and irreversible" 2015 agreement to resolve the so-called "comfort women" issue signed with Japan by his predecessor, Beijing was quick to join Seoul in criticizing Japan.

But, despite strained relations with Seoul, Abe announced that he would take part in opening ceremonies of the winter Olympics in South Korea, evidently believing that his presence would be helpful to induce South Korea to join trilateral talks, possibly in the spring.

President Donald Trump’s lack of interest in maintaining America’s global leadership has hastened China’s rise in influence around the world. As China has emerged economically and militarily, other countries, including Japan, have strengthened relations with each other for mutual security.

But Beijing sees any attempt to enhance mutual security vis-à-vis China as an attempt at its containment, as though it is possible to contain a country that is already very much a superpower.

Thus, Chinese state media has been critical of Japan banding together with India, Australia and the United States. China also criticizes Abe’s intention to revise his country’s postwar pacifist constitution as being at odds with his claim that he wants to develop friendly relations with China.

Instead of regarding Japan as a country that has been a successful democracy that has lived at peace with its neighbors for more than 70 years, China continues to focus on historical events that occurred generations ago, when few of today's Japanese were even born.

Speaking of history, why doesn't Japan play China’s game? Who dares to even remind the Chinese people of historical events, such as China's repeated campaigns to invade and subjugate Japan as far back as the 13th century?

Things would be different today if those invasions had been successful. China then would be able to adopt the same tone about Japan that it does about Taiwan and Tibet, claiming that all these territories were part of China since ancient times – but a trifle difficult to explain, perhaps, for a country that insists that war is not in its DNA.

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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.