Bilateral relations between China and Japan are at an all-time low after Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in late December, a month after China declared a controversial Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. A year prior, each country saw a new leader rise to the fore – Abe was elected Prime Minister in December 2012, and Xi Jinping was formally inaugurated as General Secretary of the CCP in November 2012. While the two might not agree on anything, their political personalities and histories seem awfully similar.
At their cores, both Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe are scions of powerful political families and both carry strong nationalistic streaks. Both have a grand vision for their countries: Abe is out to return Japan to its halcyon days as a global economic heavyweight, and Xi, aware of the challenges facing a rising China, is out to manage an era of careful reform and modernization. These visions don’t end with economic policy – they permeate foreign policy and diplomacy as well.
Both Xi and Abe have a troubled relationship with their national histories. Xi’s father, Xi Zhongxun, was a first-generation communist revolutionary who ran the gamut of party life under Mao: he went from revolutionary hero to a purged, factory worker in a matter of years. Xi himself experienced Mao’s policies when he was sent to work in Shaanxi under the Down to the Countryside Movement. When asked by state media about his first-hand experience of the Mao era, Xi noted that “In the past when we talked about beliefs, it was very abstract. I think the youth of my generation will be remembered for the fervour of the Red Guard era. But it was emotional. It was a mood. And when the ideals of the Cultural Revolution could not be realised, it proved an illusion.”
Abe, Japan’s only LDP Prime Minister to date to have been born after the Second World War, is the grandson of Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese Prime Minister from 1957 to 1960. Kishi was imprisoned after the war for being a member of the war-era cabinet but later released. Abe’s father was foreign minister of Japan. To this day, Abe perceives the outcome of the war for Japan to have been a case of “victor’s justice,” as he told Japan’s House of Representatives early last year. In his earlier term as Prime Minister, Abe contended that the 28 Japanese leaders who were found guilty of Class-A war crimes were not so under the laws of Japan. For Abe, the perceived injustices against Japan at the conclusion of the war are indisputable.
The synchronicity of Abe’s most recent visit to Yasukuni with Xi’s visit to Mao Zedong’s mausoleum highlights an important facet of each leader’s personality: both leaders revise history and are active in steering their national identities as a matter of policy. Ultimately, both leaders have a particular conception of their respective national identities – Shinzo Abe’s idea of Japan and Xi Jinping’s idea of China are grand and neither leader is interested in conceding to the other.
As I wrote earlier, Abe’s visit to Yasukuni reinforces that behind all the pragmatic sheen of “Abenomics,” Abe’s core political identity as a nationalist endures. Similarly, despite all the talk of reform at the Third Plenum in late 2013, Xi’s “Chinese Dream” has an important moral and ideological element. David Zweig elucidates this further: “Power-wise, China is in ascendancy but morally it’s in decline and so that’s why you get this effort by Xi to impose a new morality, a Maoist morality, an anti-corruption morality, a dream of greatness morality, a unification morality.”
It remains to be seen how much longer Abe can hold on to the notoriously fleeting job of Japanese Prime Minister, but so far, between his two non-consecutive terms, he has outperformed all his predecessors going back to Junichiro Koizumi, and if Abenomics continues to deliver, he may hold on much longer. As my colleague Shannon Tiezzi argues, as long as Abe remains Prime Minister in Japan, don’t expect China-Japan relations to thaw. Xi Jinping, owing to China’s once-a-decade leadership transitions, will be around for several years to come.
The first and only time the two leaders met was last October at the APEC summit where they briefly shook hands but discussed nothing of particular salience to the ongoing territorial dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Abe has maintained since then that his “door of dialogue is always open.” Should Xi choose to accept in the future, the two men might find that despite their inability to see eye-to-eye, they have much in common as leaders.