From December 2005 to January 2006, the Core Group of Chinese Experts involved in the "Northeast Asia Trialog Research Project," using a questionnaire jointly designed by scholars and experts from China, Japan and the Republic of Korea, conducted a survey among 30 Chinese individuals from business, academic, military, social, media and government backgrounds. Its preliminary findings are significant and deserve serious consideration.
The survey results show the respondents tend to hold a more favorable impression of ROK in contrast to their negative view of Japan. The positive perception of ROK can be generally attributed to three factors in bilateral relations: ever-growing economic co-operation, broad common understanding on issues such as past Japanese invasion, and increasingly popular cultural exchanges.
The unfavorable view of Japan, meanwhile, has resulted from the deterioration of political and security relations between China and Japan in recent years, particularly Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine. It should be noted that even under such circumstances, up to 40 percent of the respondents still believe China should further develop bilateral ties with Japan.
With regard to the question of what is currently the most important security issue in Northeast Asia, most of the respondents regard Japan's persuit of military power as the major security threat, and the cause of potential military confrontation.
The geopolitical reasons behind this include the factor of potential competition between Japan and China that could cause rivalry between the two countries; concerns about Japan's revision of its Pacifist Constitution, the strengthening of Japan-US alliance, and the faster pace at which Japan is sending troops abroad; the Japanese right-wing's spreading of the "China threat" theory to justify the country's military expansion and efforts to become a military power. And also, for its own strategic interests, the United States does not want to see strained Sino-Japanese relations, but nevertheless it is bonding ever closer with Japan and backing the latter's efforts to play a bigger role in regional security in order to prevent or at least hinder China's rise.
In short, most respondents see Japan as trying to upset the status quo and are concerned it will change its course of post-war peaceful development. I believe it is reasonable for the Chinese side to think so, but wish to point out that more definitive study is needed to determine if the above concern will become reality. Also it is necessary to analyze the negative impact on regional security cast by the nuclear issue in North Korea as the danger of it triggering military confrontation must not be overlooked.
On the issue of Northeast Asia economic co-operation and common regional identity, the Chinese respondents have taken "Sino-Japanese reconciliation" as the most critical precondition for regional economic co-operation and believes political leadership and willingness are the decisive factors in promoting joint leadership by China and Japan in this regard.
As for Northeast Asia Free Trade Area (FTA), the Chinese respondents hold a comparatively optimistic view. Two thirds of them expect it to be set up in 10 years, while quite a few think it is more feasible in the near future to form a Sino-Korean FTA. Most of the Chinese respondents do not regard Russia as a major country pushing forward Northeast Asia economic co-operation, but are still willing to support Russia's entry in the NAFTA on certain conditions.
The Chinese respondents see economic co-operation as the major cornerstone for building up a common regional identity, and considers energy and trade co-operation the most urgent area for advancing bilateral and regional co-operation.
I believe the points mentioned above are quite practical and demonstrate the sincere wish of the Chinese side to strengthen regional economic co-operation and form a regional identity.
Particularly noteworthy and significant is the common recognition of the necessity for Sino-Japanese reconciliation and stronger energy co-operation, which will be a great driving force behind regional economic co-operation if realized soon.
Most respondents think the rise of nationalism in Japan is the strongest in the region. They have picked two reasons over others for the rise of nationalism in the region: "the resentment towards Japanese invasion and rule (or more precisely strong resentment towards Japanese right-wing's whitewashing and denial of the country's aggressionist past)" (40 percent), and "pride in economic growth" (40 percent).
To me, these two are probably the main reasons for rising nationalism among Chinese and Koreans, but they do not quite fit into the Japan picture. As a matter of fact, it is very difficult to determine which nation is witnessing the strongest rise of nationalism at this moment. Normally, under the circumstances, one would rely on intuition more than anything else when trying to answer the question.
On how to improve Sino-Japanese relations, the Chinese respondents have listed "no more visits to Yasukuni Shrine" and "no more meddling in Taiwan affairs" as well as "easing anti-Japan sentiment in China" and "enhancing economic inter-dependency" as top prerequisites for improving Sino-Japanese relations.
These choices, based on national interests, reflect their idea of a pragmatic solution without compromising principles. They also demonstrate the Chinese side's positive attitude towards resolving major differences between the two countries and easing sentimental confrontation between the two peoples. They basically echo relevant policies made by the Chinese Government.
On how to enhance understanding and co-operation among China, Japan and ROK, most of the Chinese respondents have picked "regular summit meetings" as the most workable way for improving bilateral relations between any two countries.
Currently there is no problem for China and ROK to conduct such meetings, while those between ROK and Japan have been obstructed by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi's visits to Yasukuni Shrine, though not yet totally suspended. China and Japan have not held any summit meetings for over four years because of Koizumi's insistence on visiting the shrine. And bilateral relations have been further strained since last October, when all high-level contacts between the two governments were suspended.
The only effective way to end this extremely abnormal situation, which seriously hurts the bilateral ties between China and Japan and between ROK and Japan, is for the Japanese prime minister to give up visits to the Yasukuni Shrine once and for all. The Japanese government leaders must understand it is not a choice of submission to foreign pressure to stop visiting the shrine, but a choice conducive to their own long-term interests.
In fact, the Japanese leaders' wrongful act has met with strong opposition both at home and abroad. The sooner they stop doing it, the sooner will the resumption of its high-level contacts with China and ROK. This is not only what China and ROK hope for, but a wish shared by more and more people in Japan as well.
The author is director of Centre for Foreign Policy Studies, China Foundation For International and Strategic Studies.
(China Daily March 29, 2006)