A new honeymoon seems to begin between China and Japan as Hu Jintao, Chinese president, made a successful five-day state visit to the world’s second largest economy earlier this month.While in Tokyo, Hu met with Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and they signed a joint communiqué promising not to pose any threat against each other and proclaiming lasting peace and friendly cooperation are the only option open to the two rivaling neighbors. Their joint declaration is hailed the world over as a milestone on the tortuous way to Sino-Japanese rapprochement. Emperor Akihito received Hu in audience three times to accentuate how assiduously Japan wants to cultivate burgeoning friendship with Asia’s new economic giant.
Japan certainly needs that friendship.It cannot do without close cooperation with China if it hopes to further stimulate its stagnating economy.The United States under a new administration, which is all but certain to be Democratic, will be harsher on Japan in trade, while China offers an ever-expanding market.Tokyo needs Beijing’s support to become a “normal country” in the international community.Japan wants to join the UN Security Council as a permanent member to play a role commensurate with its economic power but its efforts have been thwarted by Chinese opposition.China is one of the five permanent members who enjoy a veto power; without Beijing’s help, Japan can never hope to obtain that lofty status which Junichiro Koizumi, former Japanese premier, considers indispensable to his “normal country.”
Koizumi also relied too heavily on the United States for solving Japan’s issues in foreign relations.That actually backfired. South Korea and ASEANstates have remained suspicious of Japan, which during the Second World War formed a Great East Asian Co-prosperity Sphere that covered all of them, plus Manchukuo and China under Wang Jingwei as well as Burma.They can hardly forget all the wrongs the Japanese imperial army did them during the war years. Friendly relations between Japan and China would end Tokyo’s near-isolation in Asia.
China, on the other hand, needs Japanese investment and high-tech expertise to continue developing its economy.Strong bilateral ties would help their economies.China is Japan’s biggest trading partner, while Japan is the biggest source of much needed investment and technology in China.Cooperation between the two countries can also shore up regional security in Asia.That is why Hu Jintao told faculty and students of Waseda University in Tokyo the revival of Asia “cannot do without cooperation between China and Japan” and the two countries must look forward, not back.He referred to the regional free trade zone of the ASEAN plus three, where China is taking the lead.He mentioned Japan’s occupation of a large part of China from 1937 to 1945 but did not dwell on it, a stark contrast to the scathing rebukes over history delivered by his predecessor Jiang Zemin during the last state visit to Japan by a Chinese president a decade ago.Hu also met with all top Japanese political leaders to assure them of China’s goodwill and untiring efforts to promote relations between the two neighbors that have never been equally strong and powerful at the same time in history.Among the leaders he met were former prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone, Toshiki Kaibe, Yoshiro Mori, and Shinzo Abe.Hu even talked with leaders of the largest opposition Democratic Party and Daisaku Ikeda, head of the Soka Gakkai, of which the New Komeito, the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s ally, is a political arm.
All this provides an official façade of warming relations between the two countries.Official relations are very warm, but true rapprochement may not come easily.There is mutual distrust that needs not years but decades to dispel.Anti-Japanese protests have subsided in China since sometimes violent demonstrations seen in 2005, but the Chinese who suffered atrociously at the hands of the Japanese army cannot so easily let bygones be bygones.Their hatred of the Japanese persists and will erupt into violence if purposely rekindled.A very severe Japanese criticism of Beijing’s human rights record in Tibet ahead of the Summer Olympics in August, for instance, may be made a trigger for a nationalistic outburst that can put an abrupt end to the new official Sino-Japanese honeymoon. The fact is that the prevailing anti-Japanese sentiment has constrained Chinese leaders despite official efforts to convince the public of the benefits of better ties with Japan.The leaders cannot go too far ahead of these popular anti-Japanese feelings.They will be in trouble, if they do.
The Japanese, who used to learn subserviently from China for more than a millennium, have turned that China worship into a disdain for anything Chinese after their rout of China in the war of 1894-95.They acquired Taiwan as a colony and soon began aggression on China to build its short-lived empire in Great East Asia.Now that China has emerged as an economic powerhouse, the Japanese look at it as a threat not only to their national security but to their leadership in the regional economy as well.Asia has been Japan’s economic backyard since its emergence after the Korean War and the Japanese hate to see that leadership challenged by an upstart China.Japan certainly sees China as a very important trading partner but the Japanese feel extremely uneasy about the real possibility that China will take over Japan as the economic power in Asia.
This mutual skepticism may yet irrecoverably doom negotiations to settle outstanding issues, including a festering feud over East China Sea gas fields, Japan’s attempts to whitewash the atrocity its imperial army committed in wartime China, and its Cabinet ministers making annual pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine in Tokyo, where the war dead are honored.
It is Fukuda who is orchestrating the new warming-up in Sino-Japanese relations to boost his sagging popularity among the Japanese people, which bodes for his earlier-than-scheduled retirement as prime minister.He does not have to call a general election in two years, but it is highly likely that Taro Aso, a rightist former foreign minister, may replace him before the end of this year.Aso may reverse the pro-China trend.
There is little doubt that the deep chill in relations between China and Japan while Koizumi was at the helms of the state will return after Fukuda bows out.However, the road to rapprochement isn’t strewn with roses but remains bumpy ahead regardless of who may succeed him.