Tue, May 06, 2008 - Page 8 News List

Editorial: Will Japan get in bed with China?

Chinese officials, including Chinese President Hu Jintao (胡錦濤) who will be visiting Japan this week, have been optimistic that relations between China and Japan are on the brink of a breakthrough. Both sides have raised the possibility of some framework for future annual visits by their leaders, which they said would become a symbol of strategic and mutually beneficial relations.

Buttressing these high hopes is the fact that Hu has played up the visit in a manner that dovetails with China’s efforts to convince its neighbors that its rise is a peaceful one. Whether it is the result of the torrent of bad publicity since the Olympic torch relay began or a heartfelt desire to improve relations between the two Asian giants, Hu’s approach has been much more conciliatory than that of his predecessors.

In fact, a joint document — the fourth of its kind since the Japan-China Joint Communique of 1972 — to be released by Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and Hu following their summit tomorrow will minimize China’s hitherto stern insistence that Japan “reflect” on its historical “responsibility,” as was the case with the declaration that capped former Chinese president Jiang Zemin’s (江澤民) unsuccessful visit to Tokyo in 1998. Rather, it is said that the new document will be “future-oriented” and focus on resolving issues of mutual concern.

Perhaps as a trading chip, it is said that the communique will include no reference to the recent crackdown in Tibet, which it will treat as an internal issue.

But there are a few sticking points that are sure to put clouds among the high hopes for clearer skies in Sino-Japanese relations.

The first is the fact that Japan will express no outright opposition to Taiwanese independence in the joint statement, something that Beijing had vehemently requested. Rather, Tokyo will maintain its position that it does not support a unilateral move toward independence by Taipei. This is good news for Taiwan, which would have been dealt a severe blow had Tokyo abandoned its longstanding position on the issue.

By doing so, the Fukuda administration will be giving Taipei enough latitude to negotiate without the handicap of a substantive ally that has been muzzled. Tokyo’s refusal to change its position also underscores Taiwan’s continued importance in Japan’s strategic sphere and outer area of defense.

Which brings us to the second likely sticking point: the Liberal Democratic Party-led coalition’s efforts, spearheaded by a referendum last year, to amend Article 9 of the Constitution, which since the end of World War II has made pacifism the modus operandi in Japan’s international relations. Pressured by the US to play a greater role in international security, some elements in Tokyo have seen this as an opportunity to break the shackles of the Constitution and give the military more opportunities to participate in missions abroad.

While the desire for a reinterpretation of Article 9 is a long way from overt militarism, Beijing is unlikely to react kindly to such developments — especially if it interprets the measures as a sign of a resurgent Japanese military or a means for the US and Japan to constrain China’s actions internationally.

If any of these scenarios come about, the vaunted Hu-Fukuda communique won’t be worth the paper it is written on, and the annual visits could very well be replaced by the alacrity that has lurked under the surface of Sino-Japanese relations since the war ended.

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