Japan and China - A Quarrel That Won't Go Away
Michael Richardson (Visiting Senior Research Fellow, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies in Singapore)
Political relations between China and Japan look likely to remain strained for the long term. That seems clear following a cabinet revamp in Tokyo this week, and moves shortly beforehand by the government of Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to tighten military ties with the United States and revise Japan's pacifist constitution - giving the armed forces a more active role in international security.
This change will worry other Asian countries that see the spectre of an increasingly sharp division between China on the one side and Japan and its US ally on the other. That split may put them under growing pressure to choose sides in a high-stakes struggle for dominance instead of being able to play one power off against another to gain benefits from all.
Mr Koizumi, who has said that he will step down next September, put the three men considered most likely to succeed him into prominent cabinet posts. Two of the three are widely seen as hardliners. They are wary of China's military modernisation and openly supportive of the Japanese leader's repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni war shrine despite strong objections from Beijing and other Asian neighbours, including South Korea. Yasukuni enshrines 14 class-A war criminals from the second world war as well as nearly 2.5 million other Japanese war dead.
The two hawks are Shinzo Abe, the new chief cabinet secretary, and Taro Aso, who was appointed foreign minister. Mr Abe has been pressing for Japan to impose economic sanctions on North Korea, in contrast to South Korea's policy of engagement. Mr Aso angered South Koreans in 2003 when, as head of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party's policy research body, he claimed that Koreans changed their names to Japanese ones voluntarily during Japan's harsh colonial rule on the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945.
Following the cabinet reshuffle, the Chinese Foreign Ministry called on Japanese leaders to show the political will to improve bilateral ties. A Xinhua commentary was blunter. It noted that Mr Koizumi's shrine visits had forced the cancellation of a summit meeting with Chinese leaders, adding that "should the prime minister and his hardline aides stick to the current stance, bilateral relations will have little chance to rebound".
Beijing will also be uneasy over the LDP's proposal to revise the constitution by dropping a clause outlawing war and expanding the role of the self-defence force - even though the changes are unlikely to be approved for several years. Of more immediate concern to China, however, is the weekend announcement by Japan and the plan to reshape their alliance to take account of new challenges.
Those include the ballistic missile threat from North Korea and Beijing's acquisition of new weapons that will enable it not just to seize Taiwan, but to project power and strike targets over increasingly long ranges.
To help strengthen the bilateral alliance, the US will deploy a new radar system in Japan as part of an integrated ballistic missile defence system, which Beijing has long opposed. In a separate agreement, the US announced that it would, for the first time, base a nuclear-powered aircraft carrier in Japan from 2008.
Beijing will watch how these political and military developments in Japan play out. But the Xinhua commentary warned that the fallout was spilling over into Sino-Japanese economic relations. These trade and investment ties are of vital importance to both countries. If they are undermined by the fraying of other strands in the relationship, it will be a sure sign of how serious the rancour has become.
(Originally appeared in the November 4, 2005 issue of South China Morning Post in Hong Kong, reproduced here with permission.)