Opinion / Op-Ed Contributors

A tale of two Asian neighbors

By Athushi Kokethu (China Daily) Updated: 2011-12-27 08:19

Sino-Japanese ties, despite being considered one of the most important bilateral relations by both countries, have gone through many ups and downs in the past few decades. After some improvements in bilateral relations in 2006 and 2007, the collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and Japan Coast Guard ships last year soured relations again.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's two-day visit to China came at a time when Japan is making efforts to maintain its alliance with the US and at the same time trying to reinforce economic and political relations with China.

On the economic front, though some Japanese felt a sense of loss when China surpassed Japan as the second largest economy in the world, others were not that affected because they had anticipated it. In fact, with the US economy struggling, Japan should see China's economic growth as a leading force stimulating regional economic growth and hope it creates more opportunities for Japan, for example, in tourism.

In the short term, the unexpected death of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK) leader Kim Jong-il has brought the situation on the Korean Peninsula back into international focus. As the DPRK's neighbors, China and Japan pay special attention to the situation on the Peninsula, an important issue that Noda is likely to have discussed during his visit to China. For peace and stability to reign in the region, it is of utmost importance that the situation on the Korean Peninsula remains stable and the transition of power in the DPRK is smooth.

Given the international environment, the return of the US to the Asia-Pacific region would appear especially sensitive.

Sino-Japanese relations have to a great extent been related to China-US ties. With the US troops pulling out of Iraq, many American scholars have regretted that the US was caught in the Iraq war and thus failed to contain China's rise in the past decade. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's statements on America's return to Asia, and President Barack Obama's push for Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) at the APEC summit, and his first participation in the East Asia Summit recently show Washington's resolve to strengthen its influence in Asia.

Under such circumstances, many would expect Japan to strengthen the US-Japan alliance to weaken China's influence in the region, for it is impossible for Japan to get rid of the US umbrella. Former Japanese prime minister Yukio Hatoyama had raised the concept of "East Asia Integration" in 2009 to inch Japan closer to China. But soon after Hatoyama resigned under the US pressure, his successor Naoto Kan changed that proposal.

At present, there are confrontations between the US and China in Asian markets because Beijing has established mechanisms such as the China-ASEAN free trade area and the TPP proposed by Washington has excluded China to reduce its influence in the region. And even if China were to join the TPP, it will be subjected to the high threshold set by the US-proposed partnership in terms of the currency exchange rate and intellectual property rights, which would put China in an unenviable position.

Since Japan has not only developed close relations with the US, but also established close economic cooperation with ASEAN member states, it is highly likely that Tokyo would play the role of an intermediary to mitigate confrontations between Beijing and Washington.

The real political difficulties coming in the way of Japan and China are practical problems such as territorial disputes. If the disputes are resolved, I think, the two countries cannot rule out a transition to a "Sino-Japanese alliance" whenever Japanese diplomacy permits. That's why I hope Noda's visit would herald better Sino-Japanese relations.

Certainly, the bargaining will be a long-drawn process before territorial disputes are resolved. Many Japanese see territorial disputes and China's growing military power as the cause of deteriorating Sino-Japanese ties. But I think a more important reason is the deep-rooted and narrow-minded conservatism and nationalism among many Japanese officials and people, which could become more severe as its economy worsens.

In fact, the "China threat" theory stressed by many Japanese media outlets and scholars is rather harmful propaganda, aimed at strengthening Japan-US alliance and military power. If there is mutual reliance between Japanese and Chinese peoples, they will not feel threatened by each other, even though historical problems and territorial disputes remain or both countries reinforce their military powers.

According to a recent Swedish report, the US still has by far the highest military budget. The US spends $661 billion when China, despite being the second largest, has a defense budget of only about $100 billion. So in the ultimate analysis, the reason why Japan would prefer to trust a stronger US to China is the lack of mutual trust between Tokyo and Beijing.

It is an important but difficult task to improve Sino-Japanese ties and enhance mutual trust. But frequent changes in high-ranking officials in the Japanese government are an important reason for the mistrust to persist. If Japanese politics becomes stable, it will help establish more stable ties between Japan and China.

In my opinion, we should start building up better relations by first eliminating existing stereotypes among the peoples of the two countries and organizing regular mutual visits by the heads of state.

Further communication programs funded by the two governments for scholars and people on both sides are also needed to promote mutual understanding. And Japanese people need to realize that close economic cooperation between China and Japan has outweighed that between Japan and the US.

The author is a professor of East Asia studies at Yamaguchi University.

(China Daily 12/27/2011 page9)

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