JAPAN MUST EXERCISE CAUTION IN RESPONDING TO BEIJING’S “SMILE DIPLOMCY”
Against the backdrop of a “new cold war” with the US, China’s leaders met with the leaders of Japan in Beijing on October 26.
Since diplomatic ties with China were restored in 1972, Japan has fundamentally assumed a low posture towards China, but it was a different story this time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his entourage, including Foreign Minister Taro Kono, met their Chinese counterparts, including President Xi Jinping, ready to make several concrete requests.
I believe credit goes to Abe for having adroitly taken advantage of a reversed position in Japan-China relations in Japan’s favor.
A host of complicated issues lie at the heart of the often-fraught Tokyo-Beijing relationship. For instance, there are issues pertaining to a possible joint development of natural gas fields and the territorial dispute involving the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. There are also some lingering issues related to the war, including the so-called “comfort women,” which have affected Japan’s international reputation.
As regards security and economic problems, Beijing has brazenly stolen intellectual property comprising cutting-edge technology and sensitive military information, which has significantly affected Japan as much as the US. In point of fact, the Chinese theft has driven the US to start the ongoing trade war.
Akio Yaita, a China expert and deputy foreign editor of the conservative mass-circulation daily Sankei Shimbun, singles out human rights in China as the most serious of the problems that Japan has with China. Yaita notes:
“Republican and Democratic members of the US Congress have asserted in a bipartisan report that more than one million Muslim Uyghurs in China have been herded into ‘reeducation camps’ and subjected to torture and maltreatment, with many resultant deaths. The US Congress condemns Chinese cruelty against the Uyghurs as ‘a crime against humanity.’
“Abe should resolutely protest to Xi Jinping against this egregious suppression of the Uyghurs’ human rights. But before that, he must first object to China’s unlawful detention of eight Japanese businessmen.”
The Chinese government has held the businessmen on spy charges, but these are ordinary Japanese assigned to do business in China who could hardly have been trained as agents. If, just for argument’s sake, one is to allege that they spied against China as Beijing claims, stresses Yaita, Abe should still demand their early release all the more strongly, as they purportedly “worked” for his government.
Although China has held not a small number of Japanese on spy charges over the years, its government has failed to provide the slightest information that would prove that they did indeed engage in espionage operations.
I believe Yaita is right in pointing out the need for Abe to bring up this matter first and foremost in his talks with Xi, as these so-called “spies” are clearly being used as political pawns.
Crucial Turning Point in Tokyo’s China Diplomacy
Regarding China’s suppression of the Uyghurs, Abe was quoted as reminding Premier Li Keqiang: “The international community, including Japan, is closely watching the human rights situation in your country.” No Japanese leader before Abe has ever taken issue with China’s outrageous human rights violations directly with his Chinese counterpart. Abe’s candor this time is expected to be a fresh and crucial turning point for Japan’s China diplomacy.
Abe also requested Xi to guarantee the safety of the Japanese detainees and release them immediately, drawing a positive reply from him that China will “properly resolve the issue, based on our domestic law.” I would assume that their release can be expected sometime soon.
Calling Xi’s attention to Chinese Coast Guard (CCG) vessels routinely violating the Japanese Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) around the Senkaku Islands, Abe also urged Xi to rectify that situation as swiftly as possible.
China established the CCG in 2013 and soon began intensifying violations of Japanese waters around the Senkakus. The Japan-China summit in Beijing this time constituted the first visit to China by a Japanese leader since China openly began violating Japanese waters. Japan would have been construed as having given China a tacit understanding to its violation of Japanese territorial waters had Abe failed to raise objections on this occasion. It was only natural he demanded that China rectify the situation, but nevertheless it was a very important step in Tokyo’s future relations with Beijing.
The remarks Abe made to Xi and Li in Beijing this time will form the basis of Japan’s China diplomacy going forward. The varied issues he took up in his talks with them will become the agenda items of future consultations. Xi’s expected visit to Japan next year is viewed as particularly important. Japan’s request that China stop violating the Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus will surely also continue to be taken up. It is critical that Japan continue to condemn China’s lawless, reckless, and repeated violations of its territorial waters.
Abe also dealt with the issue of China’s perpetual theft of intellectual property. Interestingly, although Abe demanded that the Chinese side take immediate countermeasures in no uncertain terms, Li reportedly continued to show a keen interest in the stimulating conversation he was having with Abe on how to cope with the problems of a rapidly aging Chinese society.
In other words, even though Abe raised the essential issue of intellectual property theft, the leaders of both nations apparently were still able to get on rather well with each other. Presumably, one can assume that Xi, Li and Abe were on the same wave length about these matters.
China’s low birthrate and longevity are progressing much faster than in Japan. As a forerunner among the world’s aging societies, Japan is equipped with fundamentally well-run universal health care, pension, and welfare systems. But China is fast entering an aging society on a scale never witnessed, without any plans to properly handle the situation. Assuming that
there are approximately one billion Chinese outside the higher socioeconomic class, most Chinese are sadly expected to face a severely hard-pressed old age, impairing the foundation of the “great Chinese empire.”
There is no question that Premier Li, charged with steering the Chinese economy, is eagerly looking forward to drawing on Japan’s examples in this field—a subject on which Abe is very well versed. He probably understands the social security and pension systems much better than most other Japanese politicians. Li, considered a more logical thinker than Xi, must have eagerly heeded his advice. That Abe and Li had a lively conversation on matters of mutual interest casts a ray of hope for the future of the difficult relations between Japan and China.
How will the US React to New Dimension of Japan-China Ties?
Meanwhile, I must point out that I am viewing Japan’s cooperation with China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative with more than a little concern. Japan now calls the initiative by a different name—“Business Cooperation in Third Countries”—but a number of Japanese corporations appear to have committed to cooperating with China in helping third nations develop infrastructure.
During Abe’s stay in Beijing, representatives of Japanese and Chinese corporations signed a total of 52 memoranda concerning infrastructure investment in third nations, reportedly worth US$18 billion. Further, Abe signed a currency swap arrangement with China exceeding US$27 billion.
China boasts foreign exchange reserves to the tune of US$3.1 trillion. In reality, however, its enormous external debts allegedly far exceed its actual reserves, according to financial editor Hideo Tamura of the conservative daily Sankei Shimbun (October 26, 2018 edition).
Because China would invoke the swap agreement only if its economy faced a total meltdown, it has a strong political connotation. And yet, Xi must have found very encouraging the Japanese posture of cooperation. In the meantime, I wonder how the US will react to this new dimension of Japan-China ties. After all, America started the economic war with China in an attempt to counteract the growing international influence of the world’s second largest economic powerhouse. In view of the fact that the US is Japan’s most important ally, I consider it mandatory for Japan to secure American understanding by painstakingly explaining its position before and after taking any action vis-à-vis China.
The essential requirement for Japan’s survival in the “new cold war” would be to make every effort to remain close to the US, an ally with whom it shares similar values of democracy, freedom, and rule of law. Meanwhile, China likely will never change unless the Chinese Communist Party were to collapse. In many ways, we can never expect China and Japan to take the same path. That is why Japan should not attempt to aid China more than necessary, while keeping it at arm’s length.
Japan and the US, and the former Soviet Union as well, have striven to aid China, long taken in naively by its pretense as a “fragile nation on its way to development and democracy.” But now that it finally is powerful, China has bared its fangs to all, even to those nations that had backed it.
China’s ulterior motive in swiftly shifting from stern criticism of Japanese policies to “smile diplomacy” is all too obvious. We Japanese must not misconstrue China’s intent: their smile seeks to mask objectives that clearly do not align with our own national interests. (The End)
(Translated from “Renaissance Japan” column no. 826 in the November 8, 2018 issue of
The Weekly Shincho)