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The Road From Talk to Action
Beijing and Tokyo must reconcile their differences
By Shen Dingli | NO. 50 DECEMBER 15, 2016


Robot cosmetics salesman Pepper, jointly developed by Chinese Alibaba and Foxconn Technology Group together with Japanese Softbank Corp., takes a group photo with its colleagues in a shopping mall in Tokyo on July 24, 2015 (XINHUA)

The rift between China and Japan shows signs of healing, as evidenced by the brief meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the 2016 APEC forum in Lima, Peru, on November 20. This was their fourth face-to-face encounter, following meetings at the Beijing APEC forum in China in 2014, the Bandung anniversary in Indonesia in 2015, and the Hangzhou G20 Summit in China this September. Though tough challenges remain, it appears that Beijing and Tokyo are looking for rapprochement.

Thorny issues

One of the thorniest issues between the two countries relates to Japan's wartime crimes and responsibilities from the 20th century, which China and Japan harbor vast differences on. Abe's tributary visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, a year after he was reelected in 2012, antagonized countries which suffered from Japanese military aggression in World War II (WWII) including China, the United States, and many other Asian countries. The Yasukuni Shrine commemorates those who died in service, and 14 of them are A-class WWII war criminals.

Another major obstacle is the outstanding territorial dispute. Japan's move to "nationalize" China's Diaoyu Islands in 2012 had in effect changed the status quo that the two countries had tacitly agreed upon in the past few decades. China responded in kind to defend its territorial islands by dispatching vessels and a maritime surveillance plane in December 2012. Then in 2013, China launched the East China Sea Air Defense Identification Zone, which Japan reluctantly cooperates with, after initial resistance.

For some time Japan has taken an interest in the South China Sea issue, especially in its backing of the former Philippine administration's so-called "arbitration case" in the name of protecting freedom of navigation. Though it is completely understood that freedom of navigation is of vital importance to Japan, a major maritime state which conducts its trade mostly through sea lanes, no country has ever impeded that freedom in any form in the region. Tokyo's reluctance to take an impartial position in understanding these disputes, either from a legal or historical perspective, has further deepened the divide with Beijing.

In the past few years, Japan has been bargaining with the United States in an effort to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which deliberately excludes China. Though Japan took great efforts in negotiating for its interests, the country was strategically determined to complete the TPP to weaken China's competitiveness. As U.S. President Barack Obama also views the TPP as a key part of his presidential legacy, the two allies have been bound together even tighter of late.


Japanese tourists take a look at Chinese embroidery when visiting Nanluo Guxiang hutong in Beijing on May 23, 2015 (XINHUA)

Managing differences

China and Japan had enjoyed a meaningful and fruitful relationship before 2012 in spite of occasional disruptions. Now, with a number of stumbling blocks being removed, a new dawn may be just around the corner.

The two sides worked out a four-point consensus in terms of dealing with historical issues on the eve of the 2014 APEC forum, setting a productive mood for the meeting between the two leaders on the sidelines of the forum in Beijing. Subsequently, Abe has refrained from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in person, though he has kept sending ritual offerings to the shrine from time to time.

After the Xi-Abe meeting in 2014, China and Japan resumed ministerial-level contact. In January 2015, they agreed to set up the Maritime and Air Urgency Liaison Mechanism in the East China Sea area, significantly reducing the chance of incidents at sea from escalating into major conflict. The Japanese side had accused Chinese planes of flying into its "territorial space" and Chinese warships of sailing into adjacent waters around the Diaoyu Islands, despite Chinese sovereignty over these islands and its surrounding waters. The liaison mechanism proved to be a timely intervention for avoiding potential clashes.

With regard to their differences in the South China Sea, the change of administration in Manila has ushered in a new era of improved relations between China and the Philippines. China and the Philippines have since exercised restraint and reasonably accommodated and addressed their concerns. These efforts have greatly helped reduce tension in the region. With Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte's state visit to China in October, both countries have committed to shelving their differences and pressing ahead with economic cooperation. Meanwhile, China's diplomatic work with Malaysia and Viet Nam has also borne fruit. Such development sooths the concern of all sides involved in the disputes, strengthening their relationship and healing wounds caused by previous confrontation. This preempts any major role Tokyo may wish to play in the region.

Furthermore, Japan's effort to complete the TPP talks looks dead in the water. The U.S. President-elect Donald Trump has made it clear that his administration will exit the TPP on the very first day of his inauguration next January. It seems that Abe's emergency meeting with the president-elect on November 17 has not persuaded a change of heart from Trump.

As Trump believes that the TPP will have a negative impact on America, this trade agreement is unlikely to even achieve take-off. This makes sense considering that states in the region vary a lot—it would be far more feasible to upgrade regional free trade to a reasonable level rather than a radical shift.

It then makes the other free trade proposal—the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP)—look more attractive to regional countries.


Workers assemble Murano SUVs, a production of China-Japan joint venture Dongfeng-Nissan, at a production line in Xiangyang City of central China’s Hubei Province on June 29, 2015 (XINHUA)

The RCEP is not China's creation. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) launched it in 2011 to engage China, Japan, South Korea, India, Australia and New Zealand.

Meanwhile, the RCEP is more flexible as it recognizes the differences in each member's economic readiness in embracing free trade, making this agreement more likely to benefit a greater number of actors in the west Pacific.

Since it's improbable that Abe can persuade Trump to change his mind, Japan has to seriously consider working with the RCEP, so as not to be isolated during this region's endeavor to economic unity.

Over the past decade, China has been devoted to offering public goods to its neighboring countries and beyond. Learning from experiences of various international organizations that it has joined, China is well positioned to build up new regional and international institutions as part of its commitment to improving and strengthening existing global systems. Its Belt and Road Initiative has been such a creation, aiming to promote Asia-Europe-Africa infrastructure connectivity. Beijing has also launched the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) as a new regional institution to help finance such needs.

James Woolsey, a senior adviser to Trump on national security and intelligence, has referred to the Obama's administration's boycott of the AIIB as a "mistake." Meanwhile, Canada has recently joined the growing list of members. The Trump administration might as well take the same pragmatic stance toward the AIIB, as partnering with it would help upgrade domestic infrastructure and at the same time benefit from regional development.

It is time for the Abe administration to take a realistic approach toward the new century and new world. It is important to have bilateral summits, but it is far more important to translate dialogue into concrete action.

The author is a professor and associate dean of Institute of International Studies of Fudan University

Copyedited by Dominic James Madar

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