With the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in early November approaching rapidly, hopes are high for a meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. The downturn in relations between Japan and China has been a lose-lose proposition for both countries. Japanese investment in China has dropped off dramatically at a time when Beijing can ill-afford another hit to its sputtering economy, and many Japanese companies have hitched their future to China and are suffering as a result of current political tensions. Moreover, the potential for military conflict to erupt around the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands remains significant. The summit, which will be held in Beijing, offers an important opportunity for President Xi and Prime Minister Abe to begin to bring their countries’ derailed relations back on track.
In advance of such a meeting, political advisors on both sides should seek inspiration from a few sources:
- A just-released paper by Chinese scholar Wang Jisi, “The Simultaneous Slide in Chinese-American and Chinese-Japanese Relations Is Not Beneficial,” has several useful insights (translation provided by Neil Silver of China Journal). Chief among them is the fact that China and Japan have had smooth relations for thousands of years and only decades of discontent. Wang quotes Zhou Enlai describing Chinese-Japanese relations as “two thousand years of friendship, fifty years of misfortune.” More profound—and undoubtedly more contentious within China’s foreign policy circles—is Wang’s argument that the United States is not at the heart of the current Sino-Japanese conflict; that “China has a lot of work to do” in order to reverse the slide in Sino-American and Sino-Japanese relations; and that Beijing should not abandon its efforts at peaceful development for the mistaken idea that once China’s economic and military strength are great enough to subjugate Japan and the United States, China will be able to resolve its foreign policy problems effectively. Wang’s ideas are an important and honest challenge to the official narrative that the pivot is the source of all China’s problems in the region and that it is up to others to fix the situation. His piece, therefore, is at the top of my reading list.
- A short piece by Zhu Zhiqun, a Bucknell University professor, takes the next step and offers some practical advice on how to de-escalate tensions so that the two leaders can actually meet: Abe should make a public statement that he will not visit Yasukuni Shrine again, and China should scale back its air and maritime patrols of the disputed islands. China’s contentious declaration of an Air Defense Identification Zone over the East China Sea can stand in name, but it will not be enforced. Zhu recognizes that it will take political courage for Xi and Abe to commit to such steps, but ultimately, the gains for both leaders and their countries would far outweigh any negative short-term political repercussions.
- Finally, I would recommend a terrific new detective novel, Tokyo Kill, by Barry Lancet. Tokyo Kill is above all an excellent mystery that stands on its own for great storytelling. However, Lancet, who has lived in Japan for more than twenty-five years, also offers some nuanced understandings of the China-Japan relationship that have relevance for today’s tension-filled situation. The basic understanding is that it is time for the truth to out on both sides. In a section of the book that was difficult to read at times, a Chinese doctor Wu relates in detail the horrors inflicted on him and everyone in the villages around him by the Japanese during the war. At the same time, however, he also acknowledges “We Chinese know how to eat bitterness. Our own rulers kill more of us than any foreign power ever did. We endure. We are patient.” An art dealer Takahashi serves as the wisdom-bearer for the Japanese side, “Japan has her secrets. Many are open secrets. We Japanese are aware of them, are ashamed of them, and don’t speak of them often, if ever. Our embarrassing moments remain, for the most part, confined to these shores. The language barrier and our shame constitute an effective blockade.” The protagonist Brodie has the final word: “Maybe it’s time to let those secrets out… so the skeletons, or ghosts, can finally be put to rest.”
President Xi and Prime Minister Abe would be smart to follow Zhu’s advice to get the ball rolling. Over time, however, they will need to take the more difficult step proposed by Wang and Lancet—to explore openly truths, past and present—to ensure a strong foundation for the relationship.
Elizabeth C. Economy is C.V. Starr Senior Fellow and Director for Asia Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. She is an expert on Chinese domestic and foreign policy and U.S.-China relations and author of the award-winning book, The River Runs Black: The Environmental Challenge to China’s Future. This post appears courtesy of CFR.org and Forbes Asia.