[By Jiao Haiyang/China.org.cn]
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to Washington DC to meet with U.S. President Barack Obama comes at a time of very heated tensions between China and Japan. While in the United States, Abe was interviewed by the Washington Post and made remarks about "anti-Japanese sentiment" in China and the nature of the Communist Party's interests in challenging countries like Japan, leading Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei to demand a clarification and explanation. A statement issued by Japan admitted that China does not want to clash or collide with other countries.
Abe's remarks were most surprising from a head-of-state sensitive to the importance and diplomatic repercussions of any kind of public statement. Perhaps Abe was a little too carefree during the interview, or possibly he wanted to demonstrate a stronger position toward China in what may appear as a struggle for regional supremacy. Abe may also have felt safer making these comments while in Washington to fortify the U.S.-Japan bilateral relationship. Formally, Abe and Obama were expected to discuss North Korea's weapons program, trade relations (specifically the Trans-Pacific Partnership, TPP), and island disputes in the East China Sea.
Elsewhere in the interview Abe described his supportive ties between the two countries during his previous tenure as prime minister and the "mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests between Japan and China." Even more telling from the interview was his comment about Japan's domestic and international power and influence. "The decline in Japan's economic capability is resulting in a declining presence for Japan's foreign policy as well." This is the crux of the challenge for Japan.
Although Japan was the world's second largest economy for nearly three decades until being surpassed by China, Japan never had commensurate diplomatic or military power. No Japanese ever served as president of the World Bank or International Monetary Fund, Japan does not hold a permanent UN Security Council seat, and was not a military partner in overseas operations with the United States nor did it chart much of its own independent course. Now, Japan's population is rapidly aging, its social services are stretched, its productivity is less competitive, and its fiscal security is imperiled by massive debt. Meanwhile, China and South Korea are becoming major regional players, the former supplanting Japan as the most important actors in East and Southeast Asian politics.
Essentially, Japan faces three distinct domestic outlooks in its foreign policy orientation. One is the more confrontational nationalism represented by Tokyo Mayor Shintaro Ishihara and perhaps Osaka Mayor Toru Hashimoto, frustrated by Japan's acquiescence to American strategic interests and nervous about China's growing strength. This movement largely caused the most recent stand-off over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. A second force led by former Democratic Party Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama called for more harmony and interdependence in suggesting an East Asian Community focused on a Sino-Japanese continuum. The third perspective represents the status quo, and generally comports with Prime Minister Abe's fealty and commitment to strengthening relations with the United States and walking in lockstep with America's interests in the region while avoiding antagonism with China.
Although Abe may lean slightly toward the nationalist camp, and perhaps faces greater challenges from that side, he is decidedly in the Japanese mainstream reflected in his most recent visit to the United States. The U.S. role remains as it ever has, and maintains alliances with traditional allies in the Asia Pacific, and now fosters new ties to formerly hostile states in the region.
One could even say the United States has an inherent need to spar with China, absent another potential geopolitical strategic rival. In regards to his comments, Abe's words are his own, and the United States does not support any Japanese revisionist history, by scholars or policymakers. Japanese leaders are aware of the resentment that accumulates in China from time to time, but may too readily dismiss those attitudes as mere tools of the government. The people of China (and Korea) are indeed sensitive to the war time aggression that caused enormous human suffering; and any analysis of those forces in the Chinese populace are best left to academic conferences.
If we return to the current thorn in the paw of Sino-Japanese relations, maritime disputes over scattered islands that infringe on two values essential to all countries: state sovereignty and national pride, along with resource competition and political and diplomatic status in a region between a country on the rise and one in decline. If both countries are truly committed to resolving the disputes peacefully, many venues are open to their efforts. Both countries could meet bilaterally through their foreign ministries, or seek out third party mediation involving official diplomatic offices. A multilateral forum (such as the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, ASEAN) in an official or unofficial manner could serve an intermediary function to promote dialogue. The countries could consider a binding arbitration at the Permanent Court of Arbitration or adjudication at the International Court of Justice. They could also seek out joint ventures or cooperative development projects that set aside the disputant claims, or return back to the old formulation of postponing the issue until a reasonable time in the future. The current course of more confrontational tactics that see aircraft and sea vessels increasingly facing off is a pathway of brinkmanship that could escalate out of control and result in military skirmishes.
With the stakes so high, we can only hope the discussions in Washington involve finding satisfactory methods to mitigate the current hostilities, reassure China of its inclusion in regional endeavors promoting greater integration, and ensure that prominent figures are more careful in their public statements. Japanese leaders must be more sensitive.
The author is an associate professor in the Department of Government at California State University, Sacramento, and a Fulbright Scholar (2011-2012) at China Foreign Affairs University.
Opinion articles reflect the views of their authors, not necessarily those of China.org.cn.