Can Noda Get Win-Win Ties?

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Last month, when newly-elected Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda, stated that Japanese-Chinese ties should become ‘win-win’ relations, he expressed his strong intention to improve the countries’ bilateral ties.

Since the ugly conflicts over the Senkaku Islands last September, Tokyo-Beijing relations have remained strained. The Japanese, however, were heartened by China’s swift offer in March to help those displaced by the huge earthquake and tsunami, as well as by Premier Wen Jiabao’s visit to the devastated site. Still, according to a recent joint survey by Genron NPO and China Daily, the percentage of Japanese who feel unfavourably toward China has increased from 72 percent in 2010 to 80 percent in 2011.

What factors are hindering the improvement of bilateral ties? Many Japanese were dismayed by the Chinese government’s reaction to the Senkaku incident. It claimed, falsely, that its fishing vessel had been struck by the Japan Coast Guard vessel, when in fact the reverse was the case, as videotapes leaked on the Internet clearly showed.

Many Japanese felt betrayed by China. Although Beijing had talked about building ‘strategically mutual relations,’ Beijing seemed to go back on its word when it suddenly suspended its exports of rare earths, a strategically vital material, to Japan. This was apparently a way to secure the immediate release of the Chinese fishermen taken into custody by the Japan Coast Guard. In addition, to achieve the same purpose, approximately 10,000 Chinese ‘voluntarily’ cancelled planned vacation trips to Japan. These events have helped spur Japanese mistrust of China.

China’s military, particularly naval, expansion also worries Japan and its like-minded partners such as the United States, Australia, and ASEAN countries. The People’s Liberation Army Navy now has a noticeable presence in the East China Sea, sailing through Japan’s southeast islands in the Pacific and conducting exercises near Japanese territorial waters and near Guam. The Chinese fleet in the South China Sea, meanwhile, already has had skirmishes with the fishing and naval vessels of those ASEAN nations with claims to small islands there.

The prevailing view in Japan, and the region, is that China has begun to flex its muscles unnecessarily. China seems to be trying to control the Western Pacific on its own terms, rather than trying to build mutually respectful relations through diplomatic channels. China’s first, refurbished, Soviet-made aircraft carrier, which was tested in August, reportedly will be followed by more Chinese-made carriers over the next 10 years or so.

Another source of Japan’s mistrust of China is China’s lack of military transparency. Can the Noda government have ‘win-win’ relations with such an opaque and hegemonic China? Noda’s outlook on Japan’s defence is conservative but reasonable. In an article in the October issue of the monthly magazine Voice, Noda stresses the importance of the Japanese people’s defence of their own nation, as well as the alliance with the United States.

Unlike former Prime Minister Hatoyama Yukio, who was in office for less than a year, Noda places low priority on building an East Asian community. Rather, his concern is protecting Japan’s territorial integrity. In order to limit China’s military activities in the East China Sea, Japan finds it strategically important to seek a stronger alliance with the United States. Indeed, one of the positive outcomes of the earthquake and tsunami in March was that it brought together the Japanese and US armed forces, which worked together to clean up the devastation and, in the process, strengthened their alliance.

Many Chinese may also assume that Noda will visit Japan’s Yasukuni Shrine, where 14 wartime leaders sentenced by the international military tribunal as war criminals, are enshrined. Visiting the shrine has been a source of severe tension between the two countries. But Noda has already indicated that he won’t visit the shrine.

Thus, whether Japan can improve ties with China depends mainly on China. We should remember our joint communiqué of 1972, which urged us—among others—to respect the principle of non-interference in our relations. Unfortunately, China has consistently violated this principle by dictating how Japan should honour its war dead and how its school textbooks should teach history.

Such matters are Japan’s internal affairs. ‘Win-win’ relations between Japan and China can only be achieved only when our nations truly respect each other.

Prof. Masashi Nishihara is president of the Research Institute for Peace and Security in Tokyo. This article also appeared in CSIS Pacnet.
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