Features | Politics | East Asia

Japan Embracing China?

The Diplomat speaks with Caroline Rose, author of ‘Sino-Japanese Relations: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future?’ about Sino-Japanese ties, the US-Japan alliance and the prospects for an East Asia Community.

Since Japanese Prime Minister Hatoyama and his Democratic Party of Japan came to power last year, Japan’s foreign policy appears to have shifted from being US-centric to more Asia-centric. Hatoyama has also talked about an East Asia Community. Is this realistic?

Hatoyama’s foreign policy goals are interesting. I don’t think his foreign policy has shifted from one side to another—I think what he’s trying to do is find a balance somewhere between the United States and Asia. Asia certainly features a lot more than it perhaps has done in Japanese foreign policy, although since Junichiro Koizumi, if you look at subsequent Liberal Democratic Party prime ministers, they were very actively trying to re-engage with Asia and China and make amends for that period under him when things were going fairly badly. In a sense, Hatoyama is carrying on that trend. But he’s also harking back to the ‘good old days’ of his grandfather’s time, when there was clearly a pro-China policy.

So, I think he’s trying to play both camps and balance the various issues with the United States and getting himself into hot water. At the same time, he’s trying to re-engage with Asia and find a balance between the two. This isn’t easy, but I think he’s doing his best. Of course, this notion of the East Asia Community is nothing new; he’s trying to reinvent concepts that have been used before. The most recent iteration of this was the East Asia Summit a few years ago, which failed for all sorts of reasons. He’s following a theme that makes sense and that many people have thought should be in place anyway in Northeast Asia in terms of a financial community, leading to a political and security community.

When Hatoyama talks about these concepts, he talks about a common currency and the need for a security framework, but it’s still a little bit vague at the moment. I think maybe he’s feeling his way with this idea and there’s a lot of work that needs to be done to put the flesh on the bones. And from the point of view of China, both Hatoyama and the principle are welcome, but I think there’s caution there for obvious reasons.

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Interpretation of history has long been a sticking point between China and Japan. Do you expect the recent agreement by historians that Nanjing was an act of Japanese aggression to allow bilateral relations to move forwards?

There’s been a great deal of media coverage of the results of this joint history project, and I’ve looked at both the Chinese version and the Japanese versions. Symbolically, it’s the culmination of a project that was put in place a few years ago, when Shinzo Abe became Japanese prime minister and, in fact, the project was finished about a year to 18 months ago. The academics on both sides had finished their work, but they were waiting for the right time to publish the results. Clearly the right time was a point at which a new government was in place in Japan.

I think by publishing the results of the joint project now and highlighting areas in which there’s been some agreement, (i.e. in the use of the term ‘aggression’), that it certainly helps to move the relationship further forward. However, we have to be careful about heralding this as a new era in Sino-Japanese relations. It is in a sense, because things are going very well and there’s a flurry of diplomatic activity on both sides. But again, there’s continuity. A lot of work was done after Koizumi left the scene under the three subsequent LDP prime ministers, and a lot of the imbalance had been redressed. So I see what’s happening as a sort of continuation of that, but boosted by Hatoyama’s credentials as a more pro-Asia and pro-China Prime Minister—which the Chinese are always very pleased to engage with.

The publication of the history project is certainly a step in the right direction and fulfils what Abe and the Chinese had put in place three or four years ago. That said, maybe I’m cynical, but you never know what’s going to come next where the history problem is concerned. It could be that at an official level, for the time being, things are put to one side. But we never quite know nowadays when public opinion is going to come back and create problems. For the time being, at least though, it bodes well for what the Chinese and the Japanese are trying to do in terms of improving their strategic partnership.

Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao has been vocal over the importance of improving Sino-Japanese relations in the context of Asia as a whole, but there has been speculation, including in The Economist, for example, that there may be an ulterior motive, namely to drive a wedge between Japan and the United States. Is China’s Japan policy still focused on the erosion of the US-Japan Security Alliance?

I don’t think so, and I don’t think China’s Japan policy really ever was. I think at times, for political reasons, it may be useful to view it that way. And certainly the Chinese might be wanting to play the Japanese and the US off against each other at certain times. But I don’t see that happening now, and I think that actually it’s something they could not achieve anyway. I think the Chinese leadership is very pragmatic in terms of how they see China’s growing role regionally and globally, and both Japan and the United States are important partners to it. So, I don’t think trying to split up this US-Japan alliance is a goal at the forefront of policymakers’ minds. There’s a tendency to try and find ulterior motives in the actions or the policies of the Chinese leadership and perhaps this is sometimes true to a certain extent. But I don’t think that analysis works in the current situation.

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Speaking of Japan’s relations with the US, how do you see the issue over the Futenma airbase in Okinawa affecting the future of the relationship? And how about Hatoyama’s domestic political position?

This is a very sensitive issue at the moment and is covered on the news on Japanese TV almost every night. It has dominated the agenda since Hatoyama gained power and, at the moment, we don’t know where it’s heading. Study groups have been set up and lots of key Japanese politicians are flying down to Okinawa on a regular basis to have talks. Hatoyama is saying now that the aim is to get some sort of response by the end of May. He’s having to walk a fine line between satisfying Okinawans, local governments, the Japanese public and the US, which is still a key partner. He has to play it very carefully. I think, as ever with the Okinawa base issues, it will be fudged. The LDP agreement was supposed to be in motion by 2014, but that was after many years and many rounds of negotiations, so I think this will run and run. I can’t see a clear way through, given the level of anxiety and anger in Okinawa at the moment about this issue.

Looking at Hatoyama’s political position, if the decision goes against what the US want, then he’s not going to gain any friends there. But I think he’ll work around it. I think domestically it will be interesting to see how the support rates fall or rise accordingly. He’s certainly lacking the popularity he had six months ago for various reasons, so it’s probably one of the most sensitive issues he’s trying to deal with at the moment.

China and Japan are currently vying for the position as the world’s second-largest economy. With Japan’s economy having contracted last year and with China’s growing rapidly, what do you expect the impact will be on bilateral relations between the two states, and in the Asia Pacific region more broadly?

When the Chinese announced their GDP growth earlier this year, it was very interesting to watch the public and media reaction in Japan. Actually it was very sanguine. This isn’t a shock to the Japanese. Anybody who is tracing Chinese growth and China’s economic rise will know this was on the cards. In fact, the leading industrialists who have been interviewed have all talked about China’s economic growth as a very positive thing in terms of the opportunities it grants to Japanese industry and Japan’s own economic recovery.

There’s a tendency to see China and Japan as locked into a deep economic rivalry in the region. But actually, Koizumi in particular was talking very much about China as an opportunity and not a threat. Financially this is a win-win situation—it’s not the case that Japan is in decline and China is on the rise and that this therefore means the end of the Japanese economy. We have two of the most powerful economies in one region here, and together they’re finding ways to develop their networks and develop their economies in tandem. That has a potentially very positive effect, not just bilaterally, but for the region as a whole as engines of growth—if it’s played correctly.

Hatoyama is also talking in very positive terms. He’s hinted at the idea of Japan as almost a middle power to China’s rising power, which is quite an interesting way of viewing the situation.

A rapprochement also appears to be developing between Japan and South Korea. What do you think about the proposed study on the possibility of a Free Trade Area between Japan, China and South Korea?

This is a topic that has come up quite frequently and has been mooted on quite a few occasions. But the problem—and this is the same as with the idea of the East Asia Community—is implementing it. There are lots of negotiations and lots of talk of studies, but how it actually materialises will be interesting. Hatoyama was talking about a common currency and he talked about the European model, but there’s an awareness that this will take many years to come to fruition. Any FTA negotiations take years, and Japan has tended to be a little bit slower at putting these into effect than China.

The trilateral consultations that take place now on a regular basis between Japan, South Korea and China are becoming more institutionalised and there are many more opportunities for the three countries to talk on much more constructive terms, not just on trade, but all of the other issues that are affecting them, such as security issues, human security and health issues, and food safety. There’s momentum building, but I think we’re quite a long way away from a free trade area—certainly in the way Hatoyama is envisaging it at the moment. But they’re moving in that direction very clearly.

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Dr. Caroline Rose is a Senior Lecturer in Japanese Studies at the University of Leeds, specialising in contemporary Sino-Japanese relations, and author of ‘Sino-Japanese Relations: Facing the Past, Looking to the Future?’ She is currently working on a major project comparing citizenship and history education in China and Japan. The interview was conducted by Amy Foulds.