How to Improve China-Japan Ties

Recent Features

Features | Security | East Asia

How to Improve China-Japan Ties

This week’s Asia-Europe Meeting would be an excellent place for the two to launch a new initiative—tackling chemical weapons.

Promoting global economic recovery and managing the consequences of climate change might officially top the agenda at this week’s Asia-Europe Meeting (ASEM) in Brussels. But most international attention has been focused on something quite different—whether Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao would actually speak to each other.

The two did reportedly meet for almost half an hour after dinner last night, the kind of exchange that's essential if the two sides are going to start addressing lingering tensions over the September 8 incident in which a Chinese fishing trawler collided—the Japanese say deliberately—with two Japan Coast Guard patrol boats sent to escort the vessel from disputed islands in the East China Sea. The uninhabited islets (Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China) are controlled by Japan, but also claimed by China and Taiwan.

The Japanese initially detained the crew before releasing most of them several days later. But they kept the captain for further questioning and possible trial. The Chinese government responded with increasingly vehement protests and warnings, with authorities eventually arresting four employees of Japan’s Fujita Corp, as well as an accompanying Chinese worker, on September 20. The Chinese accused them of supposedly entering and filming a restricted military zone in Shijiazhuang.

The Japanese have since released the captain, but the Chinese continue to detain one of the four Fujita employees. Yoshiro Sasaki, Hiroki Hashimoto and Junichi Iguchi returned home this weekend, but Sadamu Takahashi remains in custody pending further investigation.

Although the four Fujita employers were detained as possible Japanese spies, they were actually assessing whether to bid on a Japanese government project to construct a facility to dispose of chemical weapons the Imperial Japanese Army abandoned in China at the end of World War II. Ironically, then, the September 25 arrests have actually highlighted an area of past Sino-Japanese conflict in which the two countries are now cooperating—chemical weapons.

The Imperial Japanese Army, which brutally occupied much of China in the years leading up to 1945, left hundreds of thousands of chemical weapons shells on Chinese territory after Japan surrendered. But it’s only relatively recently that the two countries have begun eliminating these weapons, following years of delays.

The Chemical Weapons Convention (CWC), which took effect in 1997, requires its parties to destroy any chemical weapons they abandoned on the territory of another country. Japan has accordingly committed to paying all the costs associated with eliminating the former Imperial Japanese Army’s stockpile, including excavating the weapons, transporting them to a disposal point and eliminating them in an environmentally acceptable manner.

Unfortunately, the CWC set unrealistic dates for eliminating all chemical weapons. The original timeline required each party to destroy its stockpiles, including weapons ‘abandoned’ on the territory of another country, within a decade. The United States, Russia, Japan and other countries have had to request multiple extensions beyond the original April 2007 deadline, with the United States itself not expected to finish disposing of its chemical weapons stockpile until around 2021.

Last month, Hideo Hiraoka, then senior vice minister with the Cabinet Office, announced that the process of eliminating China’s chemical weapons had begun following Fujita’s construction of a mobile detoxification and disposal facility near Nanjing (the Cabinet Office's Abandoned Chemical Weapons Office had hired Fujita last year to build the mobile facility). The corporation is now considering bidding on proposals to construct additional chemical weapons disposal projects in other parts of China.

But the arrests threaten a further postponement. ‘We'd hoped to start accepting bids for construction this fiscal year,’ one Cabinet Office official noted. ‘All we can do now is try to advance the project, but considering the timing of the arrests, I'm worried it might be affected.’

It would be a shame if this latest spat disrupted progress on the issue, because addressing mutual chemical weapons threats in the rest of Asia and beyond could provide the basis for much-needed future security collaboration between China and Japan and help ease tensions between the two. After all, it wouldn’t have to stop there—in addition to eliminating abandoned Japanese chemical weapons in China, the two countries could jointly develop strategies to counter regional and global chemical weapons threats.

Both countries have important assets that they can apply to chemical disarmament. China, whose government likes to describe itself as a leading developing country that seeks to advance the interests of other developing states, often enjoys leadership status with this group. Meanwhile, the Non-Aligned Movement, a recognized bloc at CWC meetings, presently includes 112 of the 187 CWC States Parties.

Japan for its part has regularly provided generous funding for international non-proliferation initiatives, giving special priority to supporting WMD disarmament efforts in Asia. Due to the tragedy of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japanese non-proliferation efforts have focused on curbing the spread of nuclear weapons. But the Japanese are also eager to prevent the use of chemicals as weapons following their own horrifying experience with chemical terrorism—the most deadly post-war attack to occur in Japan transpired in March 1995, when the Aum Shinrikyo cult released toxic sarin gas inside the Tokyo Metro. Although only a dozen people died, 50 were seriously injured and hundreds more suffered vision and other temporary health problems. If it weren’t for some simple mistakes made by the cult’s operators, thousands could have been killed.

One area where Beijing and Tokyo can collaborate, with the support of other countries, is to encourage the few remaining outliers to join the treaty. Although the CWC has experienced unprecedented membership growth for a major disarmament treaty—188 countries representing 98 percent of the world’s population, landmass and global chemical industry have joined—several Asian governments remain aloof from the convention. Burma, for example, signed the CWC in 1993 but hasn’t ratified the treaty, while the North Korean government has never signed the convention.

Although China, Japan and other countries have rightly prioritized eliminating North Korea’s nuclear weapons programme, the potential ease of use by terrorist groups means it would still be worthwhile pressing Pyongyang to destroy its chemical weapons as well.

Chinese officials are generally seen as having considerable influence with the regimes in both Burma and North Korea, and so could persuasively argue that joining the convention would help strengthen these two governments’ tarnished non-proliferation reputations. Japan for its part could appeal to their more pecuniary interests by offering to cover the costs involved in their becoming CWC compliant.

And Tokyo would not need to bear this burden alone. Although the CWC specifies that parties must incur all the costs of verifiably eliminating their chemical weapons stockpiles, in practice foreign governments have provided financial and other support for such activities. Albania, Iraq and especially Russia have received billions of dollars worth of assistance through international threat-reduction programmes.

Indeed, Japan has already joined with the United States and the European Union in providing funding and other support for these initiatives. Brussels and especially Washington should therefore be equally generous in the case of the Asian outliers since transnational terrorists exploiting illicit trafficking networks could use any chemical weapons they acquire to attack targets anywhere on earth.

And a good place to begin this new partnership would be at the current Asia-Europe Meeting. With the diplomatic and financial encouragement of the other attendees, Kan and Wen could reap enormous dividends if they could agree to accelerate removal of all abandoned chemical weapons from China and start a joint outreach effort to induce Burma and North Korea to enter the Chemical Weapons Convention.

First though, they need to keep talking to each other.