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What Must China and Japan Do to Get Along in 2015?

A ChinaFile Conversation

Greg Baker/AFP/Getty Images
Abe and Xi at last month’s APEC meeting.

Last week, Akio Takahara, a professor at the University of Tokyo currently visiting Peking University, wrote a New York Times Op-Ed praising recent diplomatic efforts by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Chinese President Xi Jinping to deflect power from their nations' nationalists. But it is in people-to-people contact that sustainable peace between the two northeast Asian powers lies, Takahara said, prompting the question, "What must China and Japan do to get along in 2015?"

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There has been a recent spate of reporting that a thaw is taking place in Sino-Japanese relations. I am skeptical about such a claim; relations between the two powers are rarely as bad as portrayed, even when the relationship is deeply strained. So when a warming trend appears to be taking shape, such a perception is based more on an over-estimation of where the two countries stood before it began to unfold than it is on any real world events.

This contention draws on a belief that the leaders on both sides are well aware of the potential costs that any direct military conflict would incur and so are loathe to fight. As a result, the specter of war in East Asia is far more remote than some commentators have made it out to be.

Still, all is not well in the region.

The leaders of both countries are somewhat beholden to nationalist voices at home. This explains why they are completely unable to make any significant compromises on their conflicting territorial claims over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Instead, Beijing and Tokyo engage in a game of political theater over the disputed territory.

This show involves great displays of assertiveness and bellicosity. Indeed, these roles are performed with such frequency that those acting them out may see them as something more than just stagecraft. This is the greatest danger within the Sino-Japanese relationship: that leaders on either side may have begun to take their claims to these small islands in the East China Sea to heart, to think that they really matter and are worth fighting over. If direct military conflict were to erupt, the loss of life would so stoke nationalist fires that it could rapidly create widespread demonstrations and demands for revenge in both countries. Such calls could easily morph into the vocal airing of even broader grievances.

It is my sense that neither government wants such a volatile situation to develop. As a result the two Asian powers are locked in a struggle that both are careful not to escalate past the point of no return. Given such constraints the relationship is never as fraught with danger as it seems when things are going poorly, but it is also not a dynamic that can be dramatically improved in any meaningful way.

There is, in fact, a degree of co-dependency between the two countries, one that goes beyond their economic ties, and extends to the realm of identity politics. Beijing and Tokyo find a certain utility in having an “unfriendly” neighbor. It enables their populations to vent budding anger against such a perceived threat, rather than inward toward governments that do not necessarily enjoy widespread legitimacy. While Japan’s Prime Minister Abe’s confidence was likely buoyed by his party’s victory in recent snap parliamentary elections, he still faces critical questions about his handling of the Japanese economy. In China, President Xi Jinping appears popular, but continues to confront social discontent and protests on a wide-range of issues including environmental pollution, corruption, and a glaring income gap.

This situation means there is little to no room for improvement within Sino-Japanese relations, but also not nearly as much to fear as first meets the eye. In the coming year both sides will continue to joust with each other, and such sparring may at times get heated, yet the leaders of both countries will also go to great lengths to avoid seeing this escalate into all-out conflict. Such showmanship is risky because small miscalculations, or even accidents, could then change the stakes for one side or the other, and leave either Beijing or Tokyo in a position where it has no choice but to act even more assertively. This type of scenario is unlikely, but it is not such a remote prospect that it can be ignored. Perhaps, then, both countries would be well served to begin giving more serious consideration to actively developing protocols and confidence-building measures that would side-step their bedrock differences, yet further limit the possibility of wider conflict.

These steps can occur when leaders in Beijing and Tokyo muster the courage to exit the political theater that they now inhabit. If ever enacted, they would be enough to begin to truly change the Sino-Japanese relationship for the better.

The Xi-Abe handshake, in Beijing on the side of the APEC meeting in November 2014, was by most measures the singularly ‘win-win’ outcome in diplomatic ties between Beijing and Tokyo since 2012. What realistic expectations can be held about political/diplomatic ties in 2015?

It is useful, and indeed necessary, to bear in mind the temporary nature of the four-point statements that paved the way for Mr. Xi and Mr. Abe to have met, however awkward their body language appeared. Japanese analysts like Professor Akio Takahara acknowledge as much.

That said, Beijing and Tokyo have since allowed resumption of a number of government-to-government exchanges. This is an ‘early harvest’ of the goodwill projected last November. As a matter of fact, if there is a first in the order of what-to-do for stabilizing relations between the two governments, it is that such functional meetings should be allowed to proceed to the maximum extent manageable. Such meetings can make up for the loss of momentum when the atmosphere for political-diplomatic ties again gets tense.

In 2015, the political-diplomatic atmosphere between Beijing and Tokyo is bound to go through some turbulence. Even without the backlog of tensions in the recent past, anniversaries of war are occasions for nation-building rhetorical campaigns. It is only natural for China and Japan to have different interpretations of the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.

For Beijing, it will be useful to use the anniversary to remind the Chinese populace that the contemporary history of interactions between China and Japan has two phases. The first phase formally ended in 1945 and is well known for its destruction. The second phase is the one since 1945, or, more notably, since 1971, the re-establishment of diplomatic ties between the two countries.

The general public in China should be better informed about the numerous ways Japan—its government agencies and corporations—positively contributed to the growth and prosperity of China today. More emphasis on the past 40 years of mutually beneficial interactions of the two societies is useful for the Chinese society itself to grow out of bitterness about a past that is getting more distant. If we liken a nation to a person, one cannot expect to become strong if he/she cannot get out of the shade of the past.

For Tokyo, it will be useful to try to shape a consensus among its political/intellectual elites that it is in the interest of Japan not to proactively re-tell or re-interpret the war. No matter how inaccurate accounting of a particular event or battle, it was a war brought to other peoples’ homelands. The deeds of peace and development since the war’s end are there for all to see. But when viewed as willfully rubbing salt in old wounds, Japan can hardly expect its neighbors to put the past behind them.

The bottom line for assessing ties between China and Japan, though, lies in the web of societal ties, which remain strong. How not to let anniversary management adversely affect those ties is a challenge for both governments.