Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe surprised many commentators with his China policy after taking office. When he assumed the premiership in September 2006, Sino-Japanese relations had become so icy under predecessor Junichiro Koizumi (whose visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine sparked outrage in China), that the leaders of the two countries had failed to hold a formal summit for five years.
China, meanwhile, exploited concerns over an increasingly assertive Japan to stoke regional concerns about the possible resurgence of Japanese nationalism. The issue came to a head in the spring of 2005, when protests in China over Japan's supposed whitewashing of its former militarism in textbooks turned violent, with demonstrators attacking Japanese consulates and restaurants around the country.
So few held out much hope things would improve under the nationalistic Abe. Yet he surprised many people by making Beijing his first port of call after taking office, a visit that was reciprocated by Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in April the following year. The trip marked the start of what the Chinese described as an ‘ice melting.’
It’s a shame then that Abe has decided to pile on over the current tensions between the two countries in such a clumsy, heavy-handed and provocative way. Clumsy and heavy-handed because although he picked up a legitimate concern over China’s response to the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku islands (known as Diaoyu in China) he not only insisted on playing the Nazi card, but did so in a historically questionable way.
This week, Abe warned China was pursuing a modern version of ‘lebensraum’, or living space. The term is most closely associated with a key part of Adolf Hitler’s doctrine that Germany needed (and deserved) more space to allow its population to grow, at the expense of its neighbours.
Tying the recent spat over the Senkaku Islands with this concept of space makes little sense—the islands cover a total area of about seven square kilometres. Of course there are strategic and resource considerations, but this is a separate issue from the territory expanding motivations behind the Nazi understanding of the term, based on the repopulating of lands from which native Slavs had been removed. China is resource hungry for sure, but its population density stands at about 140 people per square kilometre, compared with Germany’s 228 (very similar to what it was in 1939), and Japan’s 337.
Setting aside Abe’s ill thought out analogy, a more sobre—and more troubling—warning over ties came this week from Yoichi Funabashi, editor-in-chief of Japan’s Asahi Shimbun daily newspaper.
In a letter sent to high-ranking friends in China, Funabashi reportedly warns that China’s ‘shock and awe’ campaign over the disputed islands has left ties between the two countries at ‘ground zero’. The warning is troubling because Funabashi was seen as influential in efforts to improve ties between the two nations in the 1980s, including through student exchange programmes.
And as John Garnaut notes in Australia’s The Age newspaper, this point hasn’t gone unnoticed in China. He says:
‘Many Chinese commentators are also concerned that China's rising assertiveness is harming its relations across the region.
‘“The Asahi Shimbun is the best Japanese newspaper and its standpoint is neutral. This is why Funabashi's article is so shocking,” wrote Wang Shuo, editor of one of China's leading news outlets, Caixin. Mr Wang posted Mr Funabashi's letter and his response on the Caixin website.’
Unfortunately, perhaps in response to some of the criticism it has been at the receiving end of from Japan, China has reportedly decided to cancel the visit of Osaka Gov. Toru Hashimoto, who was scheduled to address an event tied to the Shanghai Expo.
Kyodo News reported today: ‘Hashimoto was scheduled to give a 15-minute speech at a forum on Oct. 31, the last day of the expo, but the secretariat of the Expo informed the prefectural government Monday it has canceled the invitation. No specific reason was given, according to the prefecture.’
It’s an odd decision given that Hashimoto has been a relatively regular visitor to China and has talked publicly about the need for long-lasting efforts to encourage friendship and trade between the two nations.