To bridge a divide

Print edition : May 04, 2007

The China-Japan summit was aimed more at improving the political climate in Asia than at taming American power.

P. S. SURYANARAYANA in Singapore

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao (right), accompanied by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, inspects the guard of honour during a welcoming ceremony at the Prime Minister's residence in Tokyo on April 11.-ITSUO INOUYE/AFP

THE China-Japan summit in Tokyo on April 11 was a political symphony of pleasant sound bytes on the substantive issues in the troubled equation between the two nations. It was an unusually candid one, too.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe played the perfect host as his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao visited the Japanese capital for the summit and addressed the Diet, Japan's Parliament. And, the Chinese leader reciprocated in handsome measure - a sign that their third meeting in just six months marked a new stage in their confidence-building exercise. For Abe, widely regarded as a proud and steadfast Japanese nationalist, the summit was an event that might pave the way for an era "beyond friendship". And, for Wen, no less known for patriotism and a firm approach towards Japan, the journey to Tokyo was a voyage "for friendship and cooperation".

In all, their latest summit raised visions of a new launch pad for a possible space-age political equation of cordiality and cooperation. For over seven decades, both sides have found it difficult to escape the gravitational pull of the issues that divide them. This itself justifies a space-age vision in their relationship. Yet, on balance, these talks did not signify an accomplished mission that could match this vision.

Not that an "ice-thawing summit", China's `take', could have served much larger purposes. The bottom line, though, is that the new agenda, now set on the bilateral front, will be judged by the issues that are bound to arise in their relationship and not by their newly minted intentions. For the present, the new political ambience does matter a lot.

Wen told the Diet on April 12 that "peace benefits both, while rifts hurt both". In a candid reference to Japan's aggression against China during the Second World War and their differing interpretations of that event and its consequences, he sought to soothe the feelings of the Chinese people and address the sensitivities of his Japanese hosts at the same time.

Wen said "the deep scars left in the hearts of the Chinese people are beyond description". At the other end of the sordid spectrum, he noted, Japan's past invasion of China did also leave the Japanese people with enormous suffering and pain. His hosts were quick to see this perspective as China's brand new political gesture towards Japan. In this setting, the familiar Chinese refrain on the critical centrality of history to the Beijing-Tokyo relationship acquires an altogether new political resonance, supporting the possibility of bridging the divide.

Wen said: "While contemplating history, we can have a deeper understanding [about] how peace and cooperation between China and Japan are vital for the two countries and the welfare of their peoples. For friendship and cooperation, we should remember and learn from [the] historical lessons drawn from miserable days in the past. To reflect on history is not to dwell on hard feelings but to remember and learn from the past in order to open a better future."

He did not actually depart too far away from China's standard line that the two sides must hold history as a mirror and look to the future. Nor did he drop China's insistence that Japan translate its frequent apologies over its imperial-era atrocities into concrete actions that could bring about a new friendship. Yet, Wen has left his hosts satisfied that China is now beginning to take seriously the many apologies that post-imperial Japan has tendered.

The current phase of an incremental vibrancy in the China-Japan equation can be traced to Abe's "ice-breaking" visit to Beijing last October, his first foreign policy mission as Prime Minister. On that occasion, Abe held talks with Chinese President Hu Jintao as well - an event that marked a diplomatic departure for Japan, whose Prime Ministers had until then made it a practice to set their foreign policy agendas by meeting the President of the United States before holding talks with any other world leader.

Unsurprisingly, Abe's Beijing visit was hailed by his Chinese hosts as a "turning point" for the better on the bilateral front. Abe's political mentor and immediate predecessor Junichiro Koizumi had angered China by repeatedly paying homage at the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The Shinto sanctuary remains dedicated to the memories of those who laid down their lives for Japan, including a few who were convicted as Class A war criminals for their role in the Second World War.

This September 2003 photo shows a Hsiung-feng II ship-to-ship missile being launched in Taiwan's biggest ever war game. The Taiwan issue can still be the litmus test for the future of the Shinzo Abe-Wen Jiabao initiative.-SAM YEH/AFP

With Abe not having emulated Koizumi in this regard, Wen found it relatively easy to meet the new Japanese leader twice after last October's summit. The latest summit was preceded by Wen's talks with Abe at Cebu in the Philippines on the occasion of regional summits in January.

In line with the Chinese diplomatic practice, Wen's latest address to the Diet, the first by a leader of China in over two decades, was studded with a charter of five principles for better bilateral relations. These were: enhance mutual trust and honour commitments; consider the overall interests of both countries and do so, for a start, by seeking common ground and shelving differences; pursue a common development path for the economic well-being of both countries on the basis of equality and mutual benefit; strengthen bilateral exchanges at various levels with an eye to the future; and conduct close consultations so that China and Japan could cope with challenges in Asia and on the global stage.

There is nothing dramatically new about these principles except, significantly, for their application to the China-Japan context for the first time. Evident behind this checklist is China's new willingness to see Japan as a potential partner, subject to future trends, in reshaping the Asian political and economic landscape and in creating a new post-Cold War global order.

Both China and Japan do, however, recognise that there are more aspirants for reshaping the world order than just the two of them. The U.S., Russia, India, South Korea and Australia, and even the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN), are all known to be relevant to the Greater East Asia, by far the most dynamic region today. A few other players too, especially the European Union and a few countries in West Asia as also Africa and Latin America, come into the reckoning for any new global order.

Viewed in this larger perspective, the qualitatively new Japan-China engagement, now indicated by the Abe-Wen summit, can pave the way for greater stability in East Asia if the two countries tone up their bilateral ties.

In Abe's view, spelt out on April 12, "the fact that China and Japan have [now] been able to agree to cooperate on many issues marks a step forward in making ours a more concrete relationship".

Describing this emerging equation as a potentially "beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests", Abe noted with candour that "diplomacy is a prickly endeavour". Having earlier described Wen's visit as "a bright sun ray through the clouds" and also having seen the emerging Japan-China equation as a potential relationship "beyond friendship", Abe emphasised that "when national interests conflict, countries must naturally claim what they ought to claim". Is this a cautionary note from the wisdom of Confucius and the Meiji period or a hard-headed caveat from the works of military theorist Carl von Clausewitz and U.S. statesman Henry Kissinger?

Regardless of the answer, the current diplomatic overdrive on the China-Japan front does not lend itself to easy interpretations. The two have embarked on a voyage of wanting to work together without losing sight of their respective sense of self-importance. A clue to a better understanding of this emerging process can be had in the finer points of the agreements they have now reached and the differences that remain unresolved.

On the maritime dispute related to the East China Sea and the resources thereof, the two sides have now agreed to "seek joint development in a relatively broad area". They would "accelerate" their current consultations and raise them to a higher level so that a package of concrete proposals could be presented to the leaders by autumn this year. Politically, such a formulation can, at best, be seen as a slate of good intentions laced with cautious optimism.

Japan and China have, more specifically, signed agreements on cooperation in the fields of energy and environmental protection. On both these counts, Tokyo is in a position to transfer high technology to Beijing. China's nuclear energy sector, too, can benefit, if the deal does not run into any political storm. At a plane of some emotional symbolism, Japan has agreed for the first time to export rice to China.

Japan-China trade is a booming phenomenon for some time now despite their strong political differences and disputes. This provides an encouraging backdrop for the possible implementation of these new agreements that relate to the paradigm of sustainable economic growth.

More importantly from the Japanese standpoint, such accords will help project Tokyo as a conscientious practitioner of development diplomacy and not of "cheque-book diplomacy". At one level, China has already overtaken the U.S. as Japan's largest trading partner. At another level, however, Abe has pointed out that nearly 35,000 Japanese firms have entered the Chinese market, creating almost 10 million jobs in the process.

If this catalogue reflects the brighter side of Japan-China ties, it is also common knowledge that Beijing is still wary of backing Tokyo for permanent membership of the United Nations Security Council. Regardless of whether new permanent members, if and when admitted, should have the same veto powers as the existing ones, Wen has now merely stated that he expects Japan to play a larger and more constructive role on the global stage.

With Abe and Wen assiduously taking care not to step on each other's toes during their latest summit, the lingering U.S. factor in the changing Japan-China equation has been left for behind-the-scenes diplomacy. China will closely watch what Japan does, in association with the U.S., over the issue of Taiwan. With the non-sovereign territory of Taiwan belonging to Beijing under the internationally recognised One-China principle, this issue can still be the litmus test for the future of the latest Abe-Wen statements.

Tokyo shares Washington's concern over the "lack of transparency" in Beijing's spiralling military expenditure. But, unlike the U.S., Japan is in no vantage position to try and, if possible, negatively influence E.U. moves for arms sales to China. Interestingly in this military milieu, the latest effort by China and Japan to fashion new guidelines for a robust relationship will extend to confidence-building exchanges in the defence domain too.

Yet, the strategic importance of the new concerted move by the U.S. as also India and Japan to establish new military-related linkages of the professional kind cannot be lost on China. With custom-specific engagement being the new mantra in international politics, the latest China-Japan dtente of sorts is aimed not so much at taming American power as at improving the political climate in Asia.

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