Post-Summit Prognosis for Japan-China Relations

Japan and China made an important step toward rapprochement last November, when their top leaders sat down for the first bilateral summit in more than two years. But can they overcome fundamental sources of tension to build on that progress? China scholar Takashi Suzuki comments.

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In November 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping sat down together on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing for the first Japan-China summit in two-and-a-half years. Their meeting set the stage for a thaw in a diplomatic freeze dating back to September 2012, when the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands from their private owner.

The security climate around the Senkakus remained fraught in the months leading up to the summit. In incidents in May and June, Chinese fighter jets flew dangerously close to Japanese Self-Defense Forces aircraft patrolling the area, raising fears of a military clash.

Yet despite this tense atmosphere, efforts to lay the groundwork for a rapprochement were making steady progress. In May 2014 Japanese delegations from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and the Japan-China Friendship Association visited Beijing and secured audiences with high-ranking Chinese officials, including Zhang Dejiang (chairman of the Standing Committee, National People’s Congress) and Yu Zhengsheng (chairman of the of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference).

In June, private-sector figures from both countries conferred in Nagasaki at a meeting of the nongovernmental New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century. In September, the Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers exchanged views on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, and the two countries held a second round of high-level maritime consultations in Qingdao following a hiatus of two years and four months. These assiduous efforts paved the way for November’s bilateral summit.

But what are the prospects for a substantive improvement in Japan-China ties in the wake of those talks? In the following, I will begin by assessing short-term developments in the light of the bilateral agreement issued prior to the summit. I will then look at some of the structural sources of discord and discuss the long-term outlook for progress.

November Harvest

The biggest accomplishment of the Japan-China summit was securing a commitment from both sides to move the relationship forward again after years of deadlock stemming from differences over the Senkaku Islands and historical issues. With this goal in mind, the two sides worked hard to reach a pre-summit agreement.

The document, whose strategic ambiguity earned it praise as a masterpiece of diplomacy, articulates a general agreement on four basic points: (1) reaffirmation of the policy of developing “a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”; (2) “some recognition” of the need to overcome political differences stemming from historical issues; (3) establishment of a crisis-management mechanism to avert clashes around the Senkaku Islands and in the East China Sea; and (4) promotion of dialogue in multiple fields using various channels.

Points 2 and 3 refer obliquely to the two key issues that have blocked diplomatic progress until now: Abe’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine and the Senkakus dispute. Most analysts have noted that Tokyo agreed on point 2 (regarding Yasukuni visits) in exchange for a commitment on point 3, on which no compromise was possible. Indeed, the document is notable for the relatively precise language of point 3 with regard to the establishment of a crisis-management mechanism to “avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances.” The agreement’s key achievement, however, was point 4: “Both sides shared the view that, by utilizing various multilateral and bilateral channels, they would gradually resume dialogue in political, diplomatic and security fields and make an effort to build a political relationship of mutual trust.”[1]

To a large degree, the content of the talks held between Abe and Xi on November 10 reiterated or elaborated slightly on these four points, with calls for further steps toward a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests, early implementation of a maritime communication mechanism between the two countries’ defense authorities, and broad-based efforts to improve relations on various levels.[2] However, as one who has made a study of the political thinking and behavior of Chinese leaders, I was particularly intrigued by two statements by Abe regarding Beijing’s foreign and domestic policies.

First, Abe praised Xi’s leadership as an economic and social reformer, something the latter must have found particularly gratifying, given his challenges on the domestic front. “Since being appointed,” said Abe, “President Xi has been boldly engaging in domestic economic reforms and other initiatives, and is exercising powerful leadership. I [too] am striving to restore vitality to Japan’s economy and society.”[3] Second, Abe stated, “The peaceful development of China brings a favorable opportunity for the international community and Japan. I want to utilize that favorable opportunity, and cooperate as the world’s second- and third-largest economies in order to fulfill both countries’ responsibility for the peace and prosperity in the region and international community.”

Former Ambassador to China Yuji Miyamoto, who is personally acquainted with both Abe and Xi, commented that “if the two of them could speak freely to one another, they would probably connect surprisingly well.”[4] I am inclined to agree that these two leaders might find it relatively easy to build trust on a personal level, depending on their mode of communication. But even if they succeed in building a personal relationship of mutual trust, there is no guarantee that they can overcome the major structural impediments to amicable Japan-China relations, discussed below.

I have spoken with experts and officials in both countries since the meeting between Xi and Abe, and for the most part their assessment of the talks was positive. But generally speaking, the Chinese side seemed more optimistic that the summit would lead to a rebound in Japanese direct investment in China, which has declined sharply since 2013 (posting a year-in-year drop of 42.9% during the first 10 months of 2014).[5] Whether these hopes will pan out is an open question. Unlike Chinese businesses, which operate under powerful political constraints, Japanese companies follow economic imperatives when making business decisions. And the economic reality is that growing risks—including rising wages and the threat posed by the real estate bubble—make China a less attractive investment destination than before, at least from the standpoint of Japanese manufacturers.

Bridges and Obstacles to Understanding

Perhaps the most obvious fact highlighted by the November meeting was the fragile state of Japan-China ties today and the constant vigilance that is still required to keep them on track. It is sobering to think that, more than four decades since the normalization of relations in 1972, our top leaders must forge a formal agreement calling not merely for political fence mending but for resumption of economic, cultural, and social relations. Moreover, the meeting between Abe and Xi has in no way resolved the fundamental historical and territorial issues that precipitated the recent chill in Japan-China ties. All it produced was an agreement by the two leaders to contain these intractable issues as best as they can. Needless to say, this will require self-restraint on both sides.

A basic source of friction between Japan and China is the latter’s ever-growing and increasingly assertive military presence in the East China and South China Seas, including the area around the Senkaku Islands. Unfortunately, this behavior is unlikely to change as a result of the summit. Nor is Japan likely to depart from its longstanding policy of patiently relying on the Coast Guard and Maritime Self-Defense Forces to deal with the situation. Given the unlikelihood of a fundamental solution or a compromise by China anytime soon, we must content ourselves for now (perhaps for another year, perhaps for another three decades) with measures to ensure that tensions do not escalate into a full-blown crisis.

An even more fundamental problem—one that government-level talks have little power to change—is public opinion and the perception gap between the Japanese and the Chinese people with respect to their countries’ policies and positions in the international order. A “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” is all very well as a diplomatic slogan, but neither the Japanese nor the Chinese people have a clear idea of what such a relationship would look like or what role the other country would play in it. Largely as a consequence, mutual hostility between the Japanese and Chinese people has intensified over the past several years.

The results of the 2014 Japan-China Opinion Poll conducted by Genron NPO are revealing in this regard. [6] The following are some of the survey’s key findings.

    1. In both Japan and China, the share of respondents with an “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” impression of the other country stands at roughly 90%.

    2. These negative images notwithstanding, about 70% in both countries agree that “the Japan-China relationship is important” and at least that many on each side see the worsening feeling between their two nations as a concern. (Specifically, 79.4% of Japanese respondents and 70.4% of Chinese respondents chose either “This is an undesirable situation; I have concerns,” or “The situation is a problem, and it needs to be resolved.”)

    3. In Japan, the portion of those with an “unfavorable” or “relatively unfavorable” impression of China rose 2.9 points from the previous year to reach 93%, the highest level recorded since the survey began in 2005. In China, the corresponding figure was 86.8%, down 6 points from its peak in 2013.

    4. The top reasons respondents identified for their negative impressions of the other country were as follows.

    Top Japanese reasons for unfavorable impression of China:

    • Behavior incompatible with international norms (55.1%)
    • Selfish policies for securing resources, energy, food, etc. (52.8%)
    • Criticism of Japan over historical issues, etc. (52.2%)

    Top Chinese reasons for unfavorable impression of Japan:

    • Kindling of territorial dispute through government purchase of Diaoyu Islands (64.0%)
    • Failure to apologize adequately or show sufficient remorse for past aggression against China (59.6%)
    • Policy of working with the United States to contain China militarily, economically, and ideologically (41.8%)

      5. Meanwhile, the top five reasons Chinese respondents identified for positive feelings toward Japan were as follows.

        • High quality of Japanese goods (57.2%)
        • Earnest, hardworking character of the Japanese people (53.8%)
        • Kindness, courtesy, and high cultural level of the Japanese people (52.6%)
        • Japan’s advanced technology (41.0%)
        • Japan’s physical cleanliness and hygiene (38.2%)

        As I see it, there are three important insights to be drawn from these survey results.

        First, while the level of negative feeling between our two nations is deplorable, it bears noting that a majority of people in both countries wish for better ties. This is not to paint an overly optimistic picture or to suggest that improving bilateral relations will be an easy task. But these findings do indicate that the will for rapprochement is there, and if our leaders can get things moving in that direction, I believe they have a good chance of succeeding.

        Second, the survey highlights significant differences in the reasons for each side’s negative images of the other (finding 4). For China, the keywords are “historical issues,” “Diaoyu Islands,” and “containment,” in that order. For Japan, they are “international norms,” “Chinese foreign policy,” and “reaction to historical issues.”

        Third, given the top reasons for China’s unfavorable and favorable impressions of Japan (findings 4 and 5), we can surmise that a key to building friendship is to promote people-to-people exchange, even as we seek a political resolution to the historical and territorial issues. At the risk of sounding simplistic, I would venture to suggest that the best and fastest way to improve the Chinese people’s image of Japan is to have more of them visit the country, come into contact with Japanese society and people, buy Japanese products and souvenirs, and return home laden with fond memories.

        Thanks in large part to the falling yen, a record number of international tourists visited Japan in the first 10 months of 2014. During that time, the number of Chinese tourists jumped 80.3% from the same period in 2013, passing the 2 million mark to set a new record.[7] This is an extremely welcome development not only from Japan’s economic vantage point but also from the standpoint of Japan-China relations.

        However, this takes us to a fourth observation. While Chinese impressions of Japan have a good chance of improving henceforth, Japanese attitudes toward China seem likely to deteriorate further. The biggest sources of negative Japanese feelings—overshadowing even backlash over the historical controversies and the Senkaku Islands—pertain to China’s growing power, combined with its ambiguous relationship with the international order, its lack of respect for the rule of international law, and its apparent willingness to use its power to alter the status quo in the region. In fact, in the year between the 2013 and 2014 Genron NPO surveys—during which diplomatic progress between Tokyo and Beijing was nil—Japanese sentiments toward China sank to their lowest level ever, even as Chinese impressions of Japan improved somewhat as the immediate furor over the Senkakus and Yasukuni visit subsided.

        A Distorted Self-Image

        One of the basic factors underlying China’s problematic policies and behavior on the international front is a gap between the way other countries view China and the way China views itself in relation to the international community.

        In a survey of nongovernmental experts in 11 Asia-Pacific economies (Australia, China, India, Indonesia, Japan, Myanmar, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand, Taiwan, and the United States) released by the Washington-based Center for Strategic and International Studies in June 2014, the Chinese experts polled diverged sharply from the rest in their response to questions concerning US involvement in East Asia and China’s impact on regional security.[8] While 85.8% of respondents from countries other than China (92% of Japanese respondents) expressed support for the Obama administration’s strategic rebalance to Asia, the Chinese surveyed disapproved of it by a margin of 77% to 23%. And while only 13.4% of non-Chinese experts (a mere 2% of Japanese) felt that China’s impact on regional security was “very positive” or “somewhat positive,” a full 83% of Chinese respondents gave it a positive assessment.

        These findings suggest that China is quite cut off from the rest of the world in its perception of international and regional affairs. Under the circumstances, its external policies and actions are unlikely to change anytime soon, and until they do, the Japanese public’s views of China are unlikely to improve significantly.

        A Challenge to the International Order?

        Let us shift, now, from the short-term prognosis for Japan-China relations to long-term policy implications.

        As I have discussed elsewhere, there are five basic modes that an emerging power like China can choose from when dealing with the existing international order. [9]

        1. Cooperation mode: Actively supporting the existing order and participating in it as a constructive critic
        2. Free rider mode: Passively supporting the existing order and reaping its benefits without contributing substantially
        3. “My way” mode: Pursuing one’s own path and policies without regard to the international order
        4. Veto-group mode: Using one’s veto power to obstruct the international order
        5. Overthrow mode: Working actively to overturn the existing order and establish a new one

        With respect to the general international economic order, China’s trade policy and behavior have adhered mostly to mode 2, supplemented by some efforts at mode 1. On the other hand, as a non-member of the OECD’s Development Assistance Committee, China’s attitude toward the international development regime has basically conformed to mode 3. The difference relates partly to the fact that participation in the international development regime offers China relatively little in the way of direct benefits and partly to the fact that China’s own official status and national identity as the world’s largest developing country have given it leeway to ignore the OECD regime and follow its own policies in the realm of development cooperation.

        However, the situation may have changed somewhat since October–November 2014, with the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a Chinese initiative. Some experts believe that the establishment of the AIIB represents a challenge to the existing international development finance framework—in other words, a shift from mode 3 to mode 5.

        At this time, the United States and Japan continue to oppose the AIIB. Australia, New Zealand, and South Korea have adopted a cautious attitude, in deference to their ally, the United States. However, in view of their close economic ties with China and the latter’s importance in an uncertain global economy, as well as the progress of negotiations to date, we cannot assume that these three countries—let alone others with looser ties to the United States—will continue to hold out over the medium to long term.

        [1] This article follows the English translation issued by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, “Regarding Discussions toward Improving Japan-China Relations,” November 7, 2014, .

        [2] See MOFA, “Japan-China Summit Meeting,” November 10, 2014, .

        [3] While the official English version leaves out “too,” the Japanese version has “ watakushi mo .” See .

        [4] Yuji Miyamoto, “Nit-Chu shuno kaidan go no arubeki Nit-Chu kankei” (Japan-China Relations After the Japan-China Summit), Nit-Chu Kankei Gakkai , November 14, 2014, .

        [5] Asahi Shimbun , December 9, 2014.

        [6] Genron NPO and China Daily , “The 10th Japan-China Public Opinion Poll: Analysis Report on the Comparative Data,” September 9, 2014, .

        [7] Chunichi Shimbun , November 20, 2014, and Asahi Shimbun , December 9, 2014.

        [8] Michael J. Green, Nicholas Szechenyi, et al., “Power and Order in Asia: A Survey of Regional Expectations,” CSIS, July 2014, .

        [9] Takashi Suzuki, “Kokusai enjo shakai ni taisuru Chugoku no mikata to sono gaikoteki shatei” (China’s Stance Toward the International Aid Community and Its Diplomatic Range), in eds. Yasutami Shimomura and Hideo Ohashi, Chugoku no taigai enjo (China’s Foreign Aid), (Tokyo: Nihon Keizai Hyouronsha, 2013).

        Takashi Suzuki

        • Associate Professor, Department of Chinese Studies, Aichi Prefectural University