A new start

Print edition : June 06, 2008

The Hu Jintao-Yasuo Fukuda summit promises a new era in China-Japan ties based on common strategic interests.

in Singapore

Chinese President Hu Jintao inspects a guard of honour during the welcome ceremony at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on May 7.-FRANCK ROBICHON/POOL VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS

SEIZING a moment of historic promise in international politics is as important as recognising an actual history-making moment itself. Viewed in this perspective, the May 7 summit in Tokyo between Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda was a matter of seizing a historic opportunity. Given the deeply tangled recent history of China-Japan relations, it is too early to evaluate whether this moment of promise can in fact be seen later as a history-making summit.

For one, an immense subterranean political ferment marks the current Japanese domestic scene, with some action expected after the Group of Seven (G-7) and Group of Eight (G-8) summits in Japan in early July. Secondly, the Peoples Republic of Chinas proven pragmatism on the international stage in recent decades and post-imperial Japans often-successful search for new options in the very same theatre in recent years are likely to dictate a high degree of caution on both sides.

In these circumstances, Hus May 7 meetings with a number of Japanese political leaders, including those in the opposition, acquired unusual importance and his summit with Fukuda received considerable endorsement. Both leaders, while duly emphasising the perceived new promise, did not let imagination reign over ideas for the future.

At a post-summit joint press conference, Hu noted that the China-Japan relationship had reached a new starting point in a historical sense and setting. Fukuda was no less eloquent about the new consensus. Their joint statement was titled Comprehensive Promotion of a Mutually Beneficial Relationship Based on Common Strategic Interests. The two sides recognised that the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for each of the two countries and that Japan and China now have great influence on and bear a solemn responsibility for peace, stability, and development of the Asia-Pacific region and the world. It was also underscored that the two countries sole option is to cooperate to enhance peace and friendship over the long term.

Chinese President Hu Jintao with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda.-KAZUHIRO NOGI/POOL VIA BLOOMBERG NEWS

The statement said: The two sides resolved to face history squarely, advance towards the future, and endeavour with persistence to create a new era of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.... They announced that they would align Japan-China relations with the trends of [the] international community, and [they would] together forge a bright future for the Asia-Pacific region and the world while deepening mutual understanding, building mutual trust, and expanding mutually beneficial cooperation between their nations in an ongoing fashion [and] into the future.

The central theme of the joint statement, as in the text released by the Japanese side in its capacity as the host, was this: The two sides recognised that they are partners who cooperate together and are not threats to each other. The two sides again stated that they would support each others peaceful development, and they shared the conviction that Japan and China, that uphold the course to peaceful development, would bring great opportunities and benefits to Asia and the world.

In a strategic-political sense, this joint statement is a significant sequel to their earlier landmark agreements the Joint Communique of 1972, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship of 1978, and the Japan-China Joint Declaration of 1998. Those three documents, the leaders reaffirmed, are the political foundation[s] for advancing the Japan-China relationship in a stable fashion and [for] forging the future of the relationship. Hu and Fukuda confirmed that they would continue to observe the principles outlined in those three agreements as also the subsequent statements that were mutually agreed upon.

The evocative sound bite in the joint statement is that China and Japan see themselves as partners who cooperate together and not [as] threats to each other. The sound bite becomes more semantic, as also potentially more substantive, with Japan and China affirming, more emphatically than at any time before, that they would support each others peaceful development.

Authoritative Japanese sources associated with the summit say that there is no other way for Japan and China to see each other than as two neighbouring powers on the rise on independent but equally peaceful trajectories. In the opposite view, the world is going to be worse off. As Japan sees it, the really new element now is the global focus in the engagement between Tokyo and Beijing.

China certainly has come a long way in recognising that the two sides are not threats to each other. Authoritative Chinese sources say that Japan had, for long, followed the paths of Bismarck and other Western leaders of the past in its neighbourhood, unlike India, whose Buddhist influences spread across East Asia in a benign cultural mode.

China has certainly not given up its insistence that Japan face its imperial history squarely. Yet, the current political nuance of this insistence flows from Chinas recognition that the future needs to be fashioned as much on the negation of Japans past imperial tendencies as on the recognition of new realities.

Japan points out that its post-imperial military personnel have not killed a single person, either at home or abroad in over 60 years since the end of the Second World War. As for the current timing of Chinas recognition of Japan as a non-threatening force, a delayed act in the eyes of the Japanese authorities, there is no clue in the joint statement itself. However, the timing, especially in the run-up to the Beijing Olympics scheduled for August, is a measure of Chinas growing self-confidence as a rapidly rising global power that can be sportive enough to see the new Japan clearly above its old imperial apparition.

A Chinese gas drilling rig near Japans exclusive economic zone in the East China Sea. The exploration for oil and natural gas in the East China Sea remains a matter of dispute between the two sides.-KYODO/REUTERS

It is in this context that in the joint statement the Japanese side expressed its positive evaluation of Chinas development since the start of reform and open policy, saying Chinas development has offered great opportunities for the international community including Japan.

China also expressed its positive evaluation of Japans consistent pursuit of the path of a peaceful country and Japans contribution to the peace and stability of the world through peaceful means over more than sixty years since World War II.

The two sides further agreed to strengthen dialogue and communication on the issue of United Nations reform and to work toward enhancing common understanding with each other on this matter.

Moreover, China attaches importance to Japans position and role in the United Nations and desires Japan to play an even greater constructive role in the international community. This formulation has encouraged Japan to feel that its aspirations of becoming a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council might not be blocked by China any longer.

However, the formulation is still not a categorical affirmation of Chinas support at any cost. More important to the present context, therefore, is the joint pledge by China and Japan to resolve bilateral issues through consultations and negotiations. And, as a top Japanese spokesman, Tomohiko Taniguchi, told this correspondent, the exploration for oil and natural gas in the East China Sea still remained a dispute between the two sides. On the whole, however, the Hu-Fukuda summit is seen by Japan as a leap forward. Hu has even expressed the view that China and Japan shoulder significant responsibility for the development and peace of Asia in particular.

The summit-level mood in China-Japan ties will be a factor in the continuing search for a peace and security mechanism in East Asia. Japan, under Fukuda, has abandoned its initiative for the formation of a quadrilateral forum of Asia-Pacific democracies, consisting of the United States, Japan, India and Australia. It now wants to adopt a more nuanced approach to the notion of allies, friends and partners. Japan relies heavily on the U.S. as a paramount ally, engages India and Australia as friends at different levels despite differences with them on certain issues, and regards China as a partner or a potential partner on specific issues.

China, of course, sees its new sentiments towards the Japanese as essential for its continued peaceful rise. A relevant question is whether China has opted for the so-called neo-Rawlsian approach. Traced to political philosopher John Rawls, the approach, which has been recommended for the U.S. by some scholars, is one in which a state, regardless of its position in the global political and economic hierarchies, seeks to safeguard its interests through deft foreign policy moves for a brighter tomorrow.

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