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Politicizing China-Japan Ties

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China Power

Politicizing China-Japan Ties

China sees relations with Japan as a political issue. As a result, conservatives are likely to hold sway over decisions.

Following is the second part of an interview with Gui Yongtao, Associate Professor at Peking University's School of International Studies, on China-Japan relations. This is the second entry in a series of interviews conducted on behalf of partner site the Lowy Interpreter by Peter Martin and David Cohen. The first part of this interview appeared here.

Amy King at Oxford University asks: Lowy's Linda Jacobsen recently co-authored a SIPRI study on the changing nature of foreign policy in China. One of the points made in this study was that the Politburo Standing Committee of the CPCCC is often more influential on ‘controversial’ foreign policy issues, such as those relating to Japan (as well as North Korea, Burma and the US). I am intrigued to know whether Prof. Gui can gauge just how influential the PSC is on matters relating to Japan, and whether the PSC typically holds more conservative views than the Foreign Ministry or theHu/Wen leadership on the Japan issue in particular?

We have this problem that when something becomes politicised, it goes to the Politburo. Let me use this slightly simplistic way of picturing decision-making: If the foreign ministry is handling it, it is professional. But if it is politicised, it goes to the Politburo, which has a more party line and conservative point of view than the diplomats. With Japan, it can so easily become a political issue because it involves Chinese public opinion and it could cause social unrest.

So in this case, it’s the Politburo, and the problem is that none of the Politburo members are experts on foreign affairs. If you look at their backgrounds, they have guys in charge of economic affairs, in charge of ideology, in charge of legal affairs, in charge of party discipline, these kinds of things. So they look at foreign affairs not from a professional diplomat's point of view, but from a politician's point of view. They judge things from their own benefits and loss, so from the outside that makes Chinese policy toward Japan not political, but conservative, because it's safe to be against Japan. Why should they risk their own political benefit or career for this? So that's not necessarily unique to Sino-Japanese relations, but also happens with US relations, for example.

'Student at a Beijing university' asks: During the Diaoyu Islands dispute last year, the Chinese government argued with the Japanese government and cancelled many trades from China to Japan. However, the Chinese Government did not allow media to say anything about their reaction to Japan, which made Chinese people think the government was weak. Could you explain more about the Chinese government's behaviour?

That's also a problem when China deals with this issue. Let’s frame it in this way: the Chinese foreign ministry wants to calm this issue down. They have many, many agreements and negotiations with their Japanese counterparts on how to handle this issue without a final solution. But as you can imagine, probably someone from the Chinese military wants a more hard-line position, because it could be a justification for their military build-up.

But the Chinese government isn’t actually controlling this issue. There is this ‘Safeguarding Diaoyu islands movement.’ Historically, it's in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The current Taiwanese prime minister is a leader of this movement — he wrote his dissertation on this issue. But Taiwan can’t risk their relationship with Japan. So Hong Kong became the base for this movement. But Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997. So when Hong Kong activists wanted to go to those islands, they were stopped by the Hong Kong authorities, and of course this is Beijing's will. And the netizens know this, and they know that it’s the Chinese government that is pressing down on these activists. And this is the problem.

The Lowy Institute's Andrew Carr asks:  What role does a strengthening Russia play in shaping China-Japan relations? Is China worried about Russia and Japan one day aligning against it?

In last year's ship collision, Russia came to China's aid. At the critical moment, when Japan, Korea, and the United States were allied against China, the Russian president decided also to step on the disputed north islands, and China wasn’t isolated. This put Japan in a very awkward position.  It cannot risk a deterioration with both Russia and China. There are some incidents between China and Russia, some much more serious than this collision, but China never responds in this way, because Russia is very important for us, vis-à-vis influence with the United States. So is China concerned that Russia and Japan will unite against China? I would say no, that isn’t a possibility.

John Chanks, from Canada, asks: What does Japan have to do in order to convince China that she genuinely wants to coexist with China peacefully, it has renounced military adventurism and it will never bring harm to China and Chinese?

I would say the history issue and the Diaoyu islands. Japan would deal with these issues in a cooperative and friendly way. I'm not pessimistic — it takes time. One positive factor is that the older conservatives in Japan are passing away. The younger generation has more flexible views about the war because their knowledge of it is limited and not personal, so they don't link their views to their own ideological views…the most important thing is coherence. In the past, liberals took conciliatory steps, but conservatives counter-attacked the next day and made the actions look insincere.

China also always has this expectation that Japan would have an independent foreign policy vis-à-vis the United States. We always say, ‘you say you are a great power, but you always follow the US.’ So politically speaking, history is the most important thing, but strategically thinking, Japan's independence could convince some people.

The original version of this article appeared here.