AN INTERVIEW SERIES
On November 10, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping met in Beijing for 30 minutes or so on the outskirts of the APEC regional economic summit, then underway in China’s capital city. The two leaders had not met since each had come to power almost two years before, during which time diplomatic, economic, and even rocky security ties had taken a serious turn for the worse.
Veteran government officials and security analysts, while pretty much united in saying that Asia’s two superpowers talking would certainly seem to beat the alternative, they were also divided about China’s ultimate intentions, and just how far and how fast relations between Tokyo and Beijing might improve.
Today we begin a five-part interview series on these topics. First up is Corey Wallace, a specialist in Japanese foreign and security policy.
Wallace: ‘Japan-China relations remain fragile’
A native New Zealander, Corey Wallace is affiliated with the Australia-Japan Research Centre (AJRC) at Australia National University (ANU), specializing in Japanese security and defense policy. He recently finished a teaching assignment on international relations in the Asia-Pacific region at the University of Auckland, New Zealand, where he completed his PhD on generational change and the evolution of Japan’s security policy. While living and studying in Japan, Wallace worked on the staff of a Diet member from the Democratic Party (DPJ). He writes the popular Sigma 1 blog (http://sigma1.wordpress.com), focused on Japanese domestic politics and foreign policy.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does the Abe-Xi meeting represent a breakthrough in Japan-China relations?
WALLACE: I think it represents a temporary dialing down of the intensity of the tensions that have characterized Sino-Japanese relations since 2010. It sets the stage for officials and business interests in both countries to reestablish connections and a working relationship that could later be embraced by the leadership of both countries if the political conditions in the respective countries allow it. Whether this turns into a more sustainable détente will depend on a number of factors, however, and I would be cautious about calling this a rapprochement; it certainly does not represent a path to deeper reconciliation at this point in time.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The separate statements issued by the two countries in advance of the leaders’ meeting allow both countries to claim ‘victory,’ but also put a spotlight on continued differences.
WALLACE: Yes, the “simultaneous” statements approach was an unusual but perhaps a necessary one. It doesn’t compel China to necessarily reduce the number of official government vessels going into Senkaku territorial or the contiguous zones, although they may do that anyway in the short-term. It does not represent any actual change in position of the Japanese government in terms of sovereignty or even whether there is a legal dispute. It seems that the Chinese did manage to extract a vague commitment from Abe to not visit Yasukuni. Abe actually alluded on national television in Japan to an interesting statement by Xi that went something like “even if at first a stranger, they will become friends from the second meeting.” This is highly suggestive that if Abe can stay away from Yasukuni then he might get a second meeting with Xi, and that would represent a much more robust path to reconciliation. He might even get a smile with the handshake next time!
DISPATCH JAPAN: Could the differences in the statements to some extent have been deliberate, allowing both countries to save face while working to thaw relations?
WALLACE: Yes. If it was not deliberate then we would have seen much more fallout and back and forth between the two sides subsequently. As long as either side does not make too much of a fuss over the differences, and there are no incidents around the Senkakus or any visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, then the dissonance will probably be maintained for some time, perhaps even years if the working level relationship goes smoothly.
DISPATCH JAPAN: At any point leading up to the APEC meeting, did you think it was possible Xi would limit his encounter with Abe to a mere handshake, and let the "simultaneous" statements speak for themselves? Or was a formal meeting necessary to give momentum to the working level relationships?
WALLACE: Certainly up until a week beforehand, a mere handshake during a toilet break or some such was a genuine possibility. If this was merely about the optics of being a good host for Xi, then this might have been all that was necessary. A lot of credit should go to NSC Director Yachi Shotaro and MOFA officials for pushing through on both the statements and getting some genuine face time. Was a formal meeting necessary? As this is a fragile truce, it was probably important for the two leaders themselves to come together to discuss their expectations about history issues, and to discuss something concrete like the crisis management mechanism. Even a small degree of investment by both leaders in the relationship will give officials a degree more confidence in pushing forward on other aspects of the relationship.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is China really prepared to less actively press its claim to sovereignty of the Senkakus/Diaoyus in the interest of improved ties with Japan, or has China’s contentiousness taken on a life of its own such that Xi Jinping will feel compelled to continue air and naval deployments in the vicinity of the islands?
WALLACE: I don’t think the simultaneous statements – what the Chinese call the 4-point principled agreement – means China will stop contesting Japan’s effective control over the islands.
I think Japan could probably have given a little bit more without actually recognizing the reality of a legal dispute over sovereignty, so Japan may have some room to compromise a little further in the future. Whether Xi decides to turn up or down the pressure will probably depend on internal politics or reciprocal calming actions from Abe. In this sense, the communication mechanism or maritime crisis management hotline will become even more important as we settle into a new status quo.
This might be the most important practical outcome from the Xi-Abe meeting and it is worth recognizing it. Over the last year Japanese and Chinese officials have been engaging more frequently with both Japan and other nations in regards to maritime crisis management issues. Remember, last year, during the diplomatic controversy over the Chinese Navy painting a Japanese MSDF vessel with its fire-control radar, the Japanese government demanded a restart of talks over maritime crisis management that had originally begun before the 2012 Senkakus crisis. At the time this was resisted by the Chinese government, as they probably wanted to avoid admitting that there was an issue either with their behaviour, and/or with the chain of command in the Chinese military that led to this incident. But over the last year, Chinese officials have been more willing to engage on order at sea issues, and I see that Obama and Xi also made some commitments at APEC along these lines.
From the Sino-Japanese point of view, a critical event was the follow up meeting to the original May 2012 Sino-Japan meeting focused on East China Sea and maritime cooperation. It took place last September 23-24 in Qingdao, and included China's foreign affairs and defense ministries and Japan's coast guard and defense ministries.
These meetings are likely now to continue post-APEC, assuming Abe does not contravene the spirit of the simultaneous statements, perhaps by going to Yasukuni. Indeed, I understand that Abe and Xi mostly talked about this practical aspect of the relationship in their meeting, as they knew they were not going to make any progress on history and Senkaku/Diaoyu sovereignty issues.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is this thaw sustainable?
WALLACE: As long as either side does not play up the irritants that led to the undermining of the relationship in the first place, and allow time for working relations to be restored, then there is reason to be cautiously optimistic. But it will remain fragile, especially while Abe remains in office.
The issue is not just Yasukuni, but also other potential developments. What will Abe say next year on the 70th anniversary of the end of the war? Will there be a new Murayama Statement, and what will it say? I don’t think anyone could begrudge Abe issuing a more forward looking statement, but what will it say about the past? Will Abe himself utter the words “invasion” or “colonialism”? Another wild card is how China handles its 70th anniversary commemorations. If China’s rhetoric is too strong, might that incite Abe to contest this narrative?
On the other hand, one of the most critical developments that the lead-up to the Xi-Abe meeting stimulated is the restoration of links between Japan’s ruling Liberal Democrats (LDP) and the Chinese Community Party CCP), which were cut off in 2009 when the DPJ came into power. Right now the main go-betweens between the PRC and Japan are former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, and members of the Diet from Komeito. That will be upgraded in a week, when the CCP will send members of its Central Committee's International Department to Japan, where they will meet with LDP members, including LDP Secretary-General SadakazuTanigaki. If Tanigaki, who is about as dovish towards China as they come in the LDP, remains in his current role, this could bode well for the future.
There is an urgent need to restore the various "pipes" and channels for younger LDP Diet members to the CCP leadership. Many senior LDP contacts to the CCP were wiped out in 2009 elections that shot the DPJ into power.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is driving the push inside Japan for improved ties with China? The weak economy? Complaints from business? A backlash against Abe’s stance on history issues? Fear of an unintentional military clash?
WALLACE: I see a number of different factors pushing Abe forward. First, Abe wants to look constructive in front of the Japanese public to show that he is not irredeemably hawkish, especially ahead of next year’s attempts to push forward on collective self-defense-related legislation. Second, there was pressure from the US for Abe to show good faith and attempt to mend relations with the PRC. This will be quite important in light of the revision of the US-Japan Defense Guidelines. There are suggestions coming out of the negotiation process that the US might play a role in Japanese attempts to “seamlessly” fortify its grey zone deterrence (such as joint patrols around the islands), but the US will only be willing to do that if Japan is not going out of its way to stir the Senkakus pot. And finally, yes, economic interests have been pushing for Abe to reengage so that the business environment stabilizes somewhat for Japanese investment and trade.
DISPATCH JAPAN: After ratcheting up pressure on Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, and issuing two preconditions before Xi would meet with Abe, why has China seemingly changed course to seek improved ties with Japan? What factors weighed heavily in Xi’s decision?
WALLACE: The Chinese leadership may have determined that Abe is not a flash in the pan. While the Chinese attitude towards Japan is unhelpful and perhaps cynical at the best of times, I do think there is genuine antagonism towards Abe, and that many Chinese leaders wanted to wait him out. Perhaps they realized that this was not a sustainable strategy. Second, I think there was also a realization that the strategy of trying to isolate Japan from the region and from the US was not working. China can not effectively pursue a better working and political relationship with the US while relations with Japan are so hostile. Third, and perhaps superficially, there was a sense that not meeting with Abe would represent bad manners. We have seen how important the optics of APEC have been for the Chinese side. Let’s just hope this is not the only reason for signaling a desire to improve, or at least stabilize relations.
In terms of the economic pressures, I do wonder, however, whether a flood of Japanese financial and technological capital will necessarily flow back to China, as some are hoping. If you track Japan’s overseas development assistance as well as Japan’s corporate investment over the last decade, the reorientation away from China and toward ASEAN and India has been underway for quite a while. The political tensions between Japan and China probably just accelerated a process that was already evident. That said, good relations with Japan will be important for communicating a stable environment to attract investment from a wider number of nations.
DISPATCH JAPAN: To what extent has the “US rebalance”, and the upgrading of US-Japan defense ties, led China to believe the heavy pressure on Japan (and others) backfired?
WALLACE: To some degree, Abe’s relative longevity may have convinced the Chinese leadership that such bullying was not working. It only empowers Abe, and allows him to be more successful in pushing forward on his domestic security program and the upgrading of the US-Japan alliance.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Xi Jinping was clearly chilly toward Abe. Will it be possible for China to pursue improved ties with Japan overall, while, in effect, trying to work around Abe?
WALLACE: Reestablishment of official governmental talks, and LDP-CCP discussions, could conceivably allow that to happen. But it would take time for such connections to strengthen.
For the time being, China does not really have a choice but to deal with Abe. This may change if his political position weakens next year. It’s important to remember, however, that Abe does have a chance, if he makes the right choices, to actually benefit politically from these developments while moving forward on his security and economic agenda. Only time will tell, however if he makes those choices.