Japan-China Relations in 2015: The Balancing Act Continues

Kawashima Shin [Profile]

[2015.05.01] Read in: 日本語 | 简体字 | 繁體字 | FRANÇAIS | ESPAÑOL | Русский |

Signs of Improvement—and of Hesitation

This year, which marks the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II, will be a time of challenge for the Japan-China relationship. The period from now through this summer will present a number of touchstones for the improvement of bilateral ties.

Needless to say, historical issues continue to be a sticking point. But since last November’s bilateral summit between Prime Minister Abe Shinzō and President Xi Jinping we have seen a fair number of positive signs. These include a sharp increase in visits to Japan by Chinese tourists, many of whom have been going on major shopping sprees; a rise in the number of Japanese studying in China; and the building of new channels between Japan’s ruling parties and the Communist Party of China. Furthermore, China’s minister of civil affairs came to Japan in March, marking the first cabinet-level visit in three years.

Two other developments merit special note. First, following the bilateral summit, Japan and China resumed talks after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus on a maritime communication mechanism (an arrangement to avert an accidental maritime clash between the two countries), and they have reached general agreement on the matter. Second, on March 21 the foreign ministers of China, Japan, and South Korea held their seventh trilateral meeting in Seoul. The meeting lasted only 90 minutes, but it was followed by the issue of a joint press release.

While the three ministers focused on the expansion of trilateral cooperation in what might be called minimal areas, such as disaster management, the environment, and youth exchange, historical perceptions were also discussed at some length. In an oblique reference to this issue, the press release included the phrase “in the spirit of facing history squarely and advancing toward the future.” It was reportedly the Chinese foreign minister, not the foreign minister of host country South Korea, who raised the history issue with Japan’s Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio. In its outline of the trilateral meeting, the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs notes, “There were comments about the history issue made at the meeting, and Minister Kishida stated that Japan’s position remains the same as has been explained on various occasions including at bilateral meetings.”

The history issue is a major concern in Japan-China relations this year. Talks on the proposed maritime communication mechanism have reached their final stage, but Beijing is apparently hesitating to take the final step. And though China, Japan, and South Korea have held a trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting, China is said to be reluctant to stage a trilateral summit.

The Link Between China’s Domestic Politics and Policy Toward Japan

Aside from the history issue, domestic affairs in the two countries—particularly in China—are a major factor in the bilateral relationship. The territorial issue between China and Japan, the history issue, and economic relations between the two countries are all linked to China’s domestic policies. These are especially sensitive matters for the country’s conservative camp, and it is difficult for Beijing to take bold positive moves toward Tokyo while facing concerns on the domestic front.

Last year a number of senior political figures were arrested on charges of corruption, including Zhou Yongkang, a former member of the CPC Politburo Standing Committee. Late in April one of his close associates, Li Chuncheng (former deputy Communist Party secretary of Sichuan), was stripped of his party membership and purged from public service; in mid-May Liu Han, former chairman of the Hanlong Group, was sentenced to death; and on July 29 it was reported that Zhou Yongkang was under investigation for “serious violations of party discipline” by the CPC Central Commission for Discipline Inspection. During this same general period, moves were seen toward a thaw in Sino-Japanese ties. In June former Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo went to Beijing and met with State Councillor Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Wang Xi. Fukuda reported on his visit to Prime Minister Abe after he returned to Japan, and then he went again to Beijing, meeting with President Xi on July 28.

In this light, I believe that we will need to keep an eye on domestic developments in China again this year as we consider the course of the bilateral relationship. Corruption cases currently in the spotlight include the one involving Guo Boxiong, former vice-chairman of the Central Military Commission. These and other domestic concerns may affect the stance that Beijing takes toward Tokyo. It would be helpful if the domestic situation were to settle down in time to allow positive steps toward improved bilateral relations at a suitable juncture later this year, as both sides hope. We in Japan should pay very careful attention to the internal picture in China over the coming months.

The Import of Abe’s Upcoming Seventieth-Anniversary Statement

The Chinese, meanwhile, are showing strong interest in the history issue, with a special focus on what Prime Minister Abe will (or will not) say in this connection in the statement he issues this summer on the seventieth anniversary of the end of World War II (observed here on August 15, the date of Japan’s 1945 surrender).  The contents of this upcoming statement may affect plans for the military parade that China has scheduled for September 3 in celebration of its victory over Japan. They may also determine whether the Chinese will agree to a bilateral summit and whether they will move ahead toward establishment of the maritime communication mechanism that I touched on above. The Chinese may not go so far as to put all matters on hold until they hear what Abe says. But even though they may continue to proceed with initiatives in areas like the environment and economic relations, they do seem to be set to take his statement into consideration in deciding whether to move ahead in sensitive areas.

Last November 7 Japan and China agreed on a four-item document about talks aimed at improved relations, which included an explicit reference to “the spirit of facing history squarely and advancing toward the future.” It was only natural, therefore, that the Chinese agreed to the inclusion of this phrase in the press release following the trilateral foreign ministers’ meeting in Seoul this March. So while Foreign Minister Wang’s position may sound tough, China’s demands can be seen as no more stringent than before. If the Chinese wanted more from Japan, they would have to make their new position explicit in order to get it across to the Japanese side.

A Soft Landing for the History Issue?

The issue of historical perceptions is of particular importance this year, the seventieth anniversary of the war’s end, both for the relationship between Japan and China and for domestic considerations in both countries. A number of key events in this connection will be coming up from May through this summer.

Probably the first major anniversary-related ceremony on the diplomatic calendar will be Russia’s celebration of its 1945 victory over Germany on May 9. Chinese President Xi is reportedly planning to attend this event, but given the heightened tensions between the United States and Russia, Beijing will probably be hesitant to seem excessively friendly with Moscow.

The Chinese seem to have the idea of seeking to stabilize their domestic situation while delivering a message to the Abe administration and applying pressure on the Japanese side by putting various bilateral initiatives on hold. If the history issue can be brought to a soft landing, they will probably move toward holding a bilateral summit after their September 3 victory observances. They also seem to be trying to share this scenario with the Japanese side.

A soft landing is of course just one possible outcome. A number of possible destabilizing factors could interfere, including domestic events within China, renewed friction over Japan’s authorization of history textbooks, and China’s application to list materials relating to the 1937 Nanjing Massacre and Japan’s wartime “comfort women” as part of the UNESCO Memory of the World Register.  Also, while the Chinese are waiting to see the contents of Abe’s seventieth-anniversary statement, they are focusing even more closely on the reaction within Japan to the statement, particularly in the media.

A number of conditions will need to be met in order to achieve a soft landing for Japan-China relations in 2015. Above all, the governments and people of both countries will need to support this sort of positive outcome. Given the possible impact of the upcoming commemorative events and other potential destabilizing factors noted above, the prospects are likely to remain uncertain for some time to come.

 (Originally written in Japanese on April 20, 2015.)

Afterword: On April 22 Prime Minister Abe and President Xi had a summit meeting in Jakarta, where both were attending the commemoration of the sixtieth anniversary of the Asian-African Conference. President Xi called on Japan to sincerely address the concerns of its Asian neighbors and send out positive signals on the history issue, which he identified as “a major matter of principle” concerning the political basis of bilateral relations. Both leaders were accompanied by Japanese-Chinese interpreters, making it clear that the meeting had not been suddenly staged. President Xi was presumably interested in gauging Japan’s sentiments with regard to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank initiative; he also probably wanted to reiterate the message he delivered to Prime Minister Abe last year that Japan should not shift its stance on the history issue.

  • [2015.05.01]

Editor in chief of Nippon.com, professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, and senior researcher at the Institute for International Policy Studies. Born in Tokyo in 1968. Graduated in 1992 from the Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, where he majored in Chinese area studies. Received his PhD in history from the University of Tokyo. Previously an associate professor at Hokkaidō University. Author of Chūgoku kindai gaikō no keisei (The Formation of China’s Modern Foreign Policy), Kindai kokka e no mosaku 1894–1925 (Moves Toward a Modern State, 1894–1925), and other works.

Related articles
Other columns

Video highlights

New series

  • From the editor in chief
  • From our columnists
  • In the news