Beijing-Tokyo Forum offers insights on navigating the challenges in China-Japan ties
By Zhao Wei  ·  2023-10-30  ·   Source: NO.44 NOVEMBER 2, 2023
Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee Wang Yi delivers a speech via video link at the opening ceremony of the 19th Beijing-Tokyo Forum in Beijing on October 19 (WAN QUAN)

'Seeing the scene, Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda and Vice Premier Deng Xiaoping couldn't help but embrace each other, sharing their joy. I was right there, witnessing this touching moment," Yasuo Fukuda, son of Takeo Fukuda and a Japanese politician who also served as prime minister of Japan (2007-08), recalled at the opening ceremony of the 19th Beijing-Tokyo Forum on October 19 in Beijing.

Fukuda's remarks harkened back to a pivotal moment in China-Japan relationship—the ceremony for the exchange of instruments of ratification of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship on October 23, 1978.

Back to the beginning 

The normalization of relationship between Japan and China in 1972 was an important step for the two nations, but the two sides did not immediately come to a peace treaty. Though diplomatic normalization was significant, both sides recognized that more work had to be done to fully mend the damaged ties. A peace treaty would signal a new era of reconciliation and collaboration.

As Yasuo Fukuda recounted at the forum, his father characterized the conclusion of the treaty between Japan and China as transforming a "suspension bridge" into an "iron bridge." At the time, China was embarking on reform and opening up under Deng's leadership. Seeking greater global trade and engagement, China found a vital platform in the 1978 treaty. During Deng's visit to Japan to finalize the agreement, the two sides formally exchanged approved accords, cementing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

"The older generation of leaders of the two countries used their strategic vision and political wisdom to confirm the development of lasting peace and friendship between China and Japan as a common target in the form of law," said Wang Yi, Director of the Office of the Foreign Affairs Commission of the Communist Party of China Central Committee and also China's Foreign Minister, at the opening ceremony via video link.

Wang stressed that the core principles of peace, friendship and cooperation, as stipulated in the Sino-Japanese treaty, continue to guide the bilateral relationship and provide relevant guidance in addressing contemporary global risks and challenges.

According to the results of a public opinion survey on China-Japan relations conducted jointly by China International Communications Group (CICG) and Japanese think tank Genron NPO, the forum's co-organizers, which were released online in Beijing and Tokyo on October 10, nearly 80 percent of people in Japan do not know about the existence of this treaty, while some 48 percent of Chinese survey respondents said they have a clear understanding that this year marks the 45th anniversary of the treaty.

But why is that? According to Cheng Yonghua, former Chinese Ambassador to Japan, in a speech at a subforum on bilateral politics and diplomacy, Japan's diplomacy in the past was based on three principles: commitment to the United Nations, the Japan-United States alliance and prioritizing Asia.

"Now there is only one focus—'Japan-U.S. security.' A security treaty exists between Japan and the U.S., but don't forget there is also a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China. These are legal obligations both countries must uphold. The Chinese public is much more aware of this treaty than the Japanese people. There is a need in Japan to increase understanding of the treaty's significance and to consider what should be done going forward," Cheng said.

Cheng is not the only one who feels this way. As Toshiro Muto, Chairman of the Japanese Executive Committee of the forum, said at the opening ceremony, "We are here to revisit the original aspirations of the treaty. Representatives from both countries are engaged in a candid and honest dialogue about what we can do for world peace and prosperity. We seek to promote mutual understanding—that is our shared responsibility."

Commemorating the 45th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the Japan-China Friendship Center Art Museum in Tokyo presents a retrospective of Chinese paper cutting master Ku Shulan's works on September 22 (XINHUA)

Young voices 

"Youth exchange is the key to fostering friendship between the two countries across generations," said Du Zhanyuan, President of CICG, in his opening speech at the forum. "Both sides should focus cooperation on Gen Z by hosting events such as comic book competitions, youth music festivals, art festivals, and more. This will help develop common interests and shared tastes among the youth, while innovating new forms and channels of exchange to pass on the baton of China-Japan friendship across generations."

Muto also emphasized in his speech that regardless of the existing obstacles in the China-Japan relationship, people-to-people discussions should take the lead, which is precisely the spirit that has underpinned the Beijing-Tokyo Forum for the past 19 years.

Muto's speech was in line with the results of the public opinion survey. According to the survey's results, more than 60 percent of Chinese and more than 50 percent of Japanese respondents agreed that people-to-people exchanges are the key to improving relations. However, a contradiction in the same survey is that nearly 90 percent of the respondents admitted they had never visited the other country.

"Let's take action with our feet first. This is an important topic for our youth dialogue," said Zhang Xuesong, Director of the Strategic Research Department at CICG Asia-Pacific, who cohosted a subforum focused on young voices.

"As the world grows more complex, some people, even young people, think in black or white, seeing things as completely good or completely bad. This simplification is a dangerous trend that merits vigilance. So through today's dialogue, let's remove simplification and embrace diversity. Let's recognize this imperfect world and imperfect relations so we can learn from each other, accept our differences, and adapt," Zhang summarized.

In recent years, Chinese mobile games such as Genshin Impact, Chinese science fiction novels and Chinese makeup trends have gained considerable popularity in Japan. This has opened a window for more Japanese youth to understand contemporary China. A related opinion poll and several surveys conducted by Japan's Cabinet Office also show that the younger generation in Japan has a rather positive attitude toward China.

The Beijing Consensus 

Now in its 19th year, the Beijing-Tokyo Forum has become a pillar of China-Japan relationship. Since its founding in 2005, the forum has convened annually in alternating host cities. This regular high-level civilian exchange makes it one of the most important platforms between the two neighbors.

After three online editions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the forum returned to an offline format this year. Over two days of intensive dialogue, nearly 100 experts and scholars from China and Japan engaged in frank and in-depth discussions on critical issues affecting the bilateral relationship.

During the general assembly and parallel sessions, speakers exchanged perspectives for a total of 14 hours. Topics spanned political and diplomatic ties, nuclear security, economic and trade cooperation, the digital economy, media, youth exchanges and more. Teams from both sides then spent an additional 7.5 hours distilling the insights into a consensus document—aka the Beijing Consensus—to capture the essence of this year's forum.

The five-point consensus emphasized the pressing need for China and Japan to redouble their efforts as stakeholders in Asian peace and prosperity. It also called for the renewal of the spirit of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship through the improvement of dialogue mechanisms and the promotion of stable relations. Other aspects included cooperation on nuclear safety, preventing nuclear proliferation and addressing the Fukushima radioactive wastewater issue.

Looking at flashpoints from Russia-Ukraine to Israel-Palestine, the consensus advocated respect for sovereignty and peaceful resolution of disputes. On the economic front, it warned against division and called for the creation of an inclusive and sustainable world economy "by avoiding over-securitization."

Finally, it encouraged greater cooperation on digital technologies and artificial intelligence for human progress, while regulating (potentially) risky applications. Overall, the consensus reflected a pragmatic search for stability in a turbulent world.

Navigating the complex landscape of China-Japan ties today is a greater challenge for the forum today than ever before. But organizers do recognize that its value is also greater than ever. The forum's "people-to-officials" model aims to distill insights from candid public discussions into consensus proposals for pragmatic cooperation.

Wu Yiwei, Director of the Beijing-Tokyo Forum Preparatory Office under CICG Asia-Pacific, shared the story of a Japanese staff member who took special leave to volunteer at the forum in Beijing all the way from Japan.

"Working on China-Japan relations is currently full of challenges," Wu later posted on WeChat, the international version of China's ubiquitous Weixin super app. "But compared to 45 years ago, we now have many more channels for mutual understanding." 

He has observed his Chinese and Japanese WeChat friends' increasingly frequent social media interactions in each other's languages, in turn enriching cultural introductions, as well as young Chinese mourning losses such as the recent deaths of famed Japanese musicians Ryuichi Sakamoto and Shinji Tanimura on the app. Some Chinese soccer fans also voiced their hope Japan would win the World Cup.

"Let more of the 'silent majority' speak up," Wu shared. "And persist in doing difficult but right things."

(Print Edition Title: Tightening Iron Bridge Bolts) 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

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