By Eric Teo Chu Cheow
China will have to contend with a new Japan in 2006 a nation that is being described as more conservative, hawkish or even nationalistic by analysts.
Japan has made a turn to the right in political orientation, which may pose greater diplomatic challenges for Sino-Japanese relations in Beijing, at the heart of which lies Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.
China is undoubtedly seeking diplomatic stabilization with its major partners; but Japan could prove to be troublesome.
Beijing used the 60th anniversary commemorations of World War II to reach out to the Japanese people (as in the September 3 speech by President Hu Jintao about "non-hatred against Japan"), whilst maintaining a tough line on Koizumi's persistent Yasukuni Shrine visits.
But thanks to his wily political instincts, Koizumi won a landslide electoral victory on September 11, by gambling on his proposed postal reforms, and convinced Japanese voters to give him a strong mandate to rule, amidst a promise to step down as prime minister by September 2006, when his term as LDP chairman expires.
In reality, Koizumi has always been more focused on domestic affairs, as a politician, than on foreign relations, which have been his weak point.
In defiance of Beijing, Koizumi visited the Yasukuni Shrine on October 17 for the fifth time since he took office, on the same day Beijing heralded the successful return of the Shenzhou VI space mission to Earth.
Koizumi then named a hawkish cabinet, including Shinzo Abe in the powerful post of cabinet secretary and Taro Aso as foreign minister.
Aso's first speech as Gaimusho Chief stressed the crucial importance of Tokyo's relations with Washington in terms of the so-called "US first, Asia second" foreign policy.
Moreover, Beijing is alarmed by the "return to normalcy" of Koizumi's Japan, especially in abandoning its peaceful status in military terms. China fears a resurgence of the military right as opinion polls have shown the majority of Japanese agreeing to an amendment to Japan's pacifist constitution and giving a greater role to Japan's Self Defence Forces in international peacekeeping, and perhaps beyond.
Amending article 9 of the Japanese pacifist constitution symbolizes the worst strategic nightmare of China and other Asian countries.
Since the "2+2" meeting between American and Japanese foreign and defence ministers on February 19, the US-Japan military alliance is clearly stronger than ever. It was re-affirmed recently by the new cabinet in Tokyo, which may allow Japan to rehabilitate its military and take an active role in America's Theatre Missile Defence.
Tokyo has been in the forefront of lobbying against the lifting of the European Union arms embargo on China in unison with Washington. The "China threat" idea is also brandished more fervently in Tokyo circles than in Washington.
In fact, Beijing has embarked on a diplomatic effort to dispel growing concerns about its "rising threat."
But unfortunately, China has a long way to go in terms of bridging this "no threat" understanding with Tokyo, given Koizumi's insistence on Yasukuni visits and his increasingly hard line position.
Historically, although China has been humiliated by the West in the last two centuries and skirmishes have taken place with India and Russia, it was only with Japan that the nation has truly fought two large-scale bloody wars, with devastating consequences.
The nightmares in Beijing have thus been all the more terrifying as the specter of a rising rightist, militaristic Japanese threat constitutes the least assuring of international trends for China today.
Koizumi should understand that his persistent assertions about neighboring countries "growing to understand Japan's position on state and religion" definitely do not help improve relations.
At the same time, he is weakening Japan's own diplomatic position and role within East Asia, at a time when the region has been revitalized in Kuala Lumpur. Tokyo's impact on East Asia has so far been marginal, even though it pledged US$60 million worth of assistance to ASEAN countries in Malaysia.
In fact, Koizumi should consider taking advantage of his last nine months in office to pull off a real diplomatic coup by denouncing visits to Yasukuni and learning from history. Only then will he emerge as a real statesman and achieve the ultimate rapprochement by sealing a historic entente between China and Japan.
This could be Koizumi's most lasting legacy to Japan, China and East Asia, and the real key to building… the East Asian community of tomorrow. This should really be Asia's greatest hope for 2006.
The author is a council member of the Singapore Institute for International Affairs.
(China Daily December 21, 2005)