On August 15, the spotlight will be on Japan again as another year passes on the anniversary of Tokyo’s surrender during World War II. More specifically, officials in China and South Korea will train a close eye to Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe to see if he chooses to visit Yasukuni shrine—which is a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead from a wide range of conflicts from the Satsuma rebellion to World War II. According to most reports, it appears that Abe has already dismissed the idea of visiting Yasukuni on August 15th and has privately sought assurances, despite his public remarks in the Diet, from senior cabinet officials—including Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida—that they also refrain from making a public visit. The gesture is obviously aimed at containing any potential fallout that would further inflame ties with China and South Korea, as well as a potential censure from Washington behind the scenes.
If Abe visits Yasukuni this month, there is no doubt that it would create temporary pandemonium across the fragile diplomatic landscape in East Asia. But there is another looming anniversary that has a stronger potential to upend the shaky equilibrium currently staked between Tokyo and Beijing. September 11, 2013 will mark the one year anniversary of the date when the Japanese government, then led by former prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, finalized its purchase of the Senkaku islands (referred to as the Diaoyu by China). Tensions between Tokyo and Beijing in the East China Sea have simmered since that point with periodic spikes, such as China’s dangerous radar-lock of a Japanese destroyer last January.
Yet while serious conflict in the East China Sea has been avoided thus far, both sides will need to remain vigilant to the inevitable posturing and nongovernmental interference that will come in the days leading up to the one-year anniversary of the purchase. For example, there are already reports that a group of Hong Kong activists (the same group that approached the islands last year) plan on making an attempt to land on the Senkaku/Diaoyu on September 11. While such a landing could be intercepted by the Japanese Coast Guard, Tokyo will need to calibrate its use of force to ensure conflict—either diplomatic or a tussle with Chinese ships—is avoided. Similarly, Japan will need to contain its own activists, who will likely stage demonstrations and potentially an attempted landing on the islands.
Commentary this summer largely focused on negatives of the Japan-China relationship including: the continuous diplomatic barbs over Chinese incursions around Japan’s administered territory in the East China Sea; the lack of real traction for a leaders’ summit between Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping; the unveiling of Japan’s massive helicopter-carrier—the Izumo—earlier this month along; new defense plans for a development of amphibious capabilities for the JMSDF in order to defend “remote islands;” and the hopelessness created by Abe’s new mandate after his significant win in the upper-house election last month. Indeed the New York Times warned Abe on “overheated rhetoric towards China” and the South China Morning Post lamented that his victory was “so big there are suspicions he will lose interest in difficult economic reforms and pursue his nationalist agenda instead.”
However on the sidelines of such alarmism is some sensible analysis recognizing that Abe can’t simply abandon his economic reforms or switch gears towards a hawkish approach on China. Jeffrey Hornung, associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, wrote last month before the election: “Everyone is expecting that after this month’s election, when the Liberal Democratic Party is expected to win big, the “real Abe” or “true Abe” will finally show his face. That is usually taken by the media to mean he will have full authority to pursue a rabid nationalist agenda that will poke China and South Korea in the eyes. What is being argued here is that Abe has other pressing challenges that are more important, so he will be forced to go slow on his agenda or risk his survival as premier.” Tobias Harris also recently noted in the National Interest, “It would appear that Abe is finally in a position to leave his mark on Japan. The reality, however, is more complicated. Abe may be in control of the government, but he is hemmed in in every direction, and his government rests on a narrow foundation.”
This brings us back to Japan-China relationship, which both Abe and Xi understand is critical to maintain and improve. It is a non sequitur argument to assume that both sides will simply dig in their heels and sideline all initiatives or forms of cooperation. Indeed, there are several reasons why Sino-Japanese relations will likely improve over the coming year—save a miscalculation in the East China Sea or a visit to Yasukuni by Abe. First, Japan and China rely on each other economically too much, and their trade is too intertwined, to allow a more existential split. As Richard Katz aptly noted in Foreign Affairs last month, “China needs to buy Japanese products as much as Japan needs to sell them. Many of the high-tech products assembled in and exported from China, often on behalf of American and European firms, use advanced Japanese-made parts. China could not boycott Japan, let alone precipitate an actual conflict, without stymieing the export-fueled economic miracle that underpins Communist Party rule.”
Indeed, Japanese companies have been feeling the crunch over the past two years especially and have been actively—with the help of repeated international visits from Abe—searching for new regions to invest their capital, such as Southeast Asia. Japan’s share of trade with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) continues to grow at a dramatic pace while the same slice of the pie with China has been declining. But this point should not be overstated. Bilateral trade has been recovering since last fall’s diplomatic standoff and the two countries remain committed towards building momentum on the nascent China-Japan-Korea Free Trade Agreement. China likewise remains wedded—if not dependent—to the substantial amount of foreign direct investment coming from Japan.
Second, political ties, if not yet stable, are warming. A week after securing a big victory in the upper house elections, Abe signalled his desire to soothe frayed ties with China by sending Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki to Beijing. During his trip, Saiki reportedly met with Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi and his deputy Zhang Yesui to discuss ways to improve a relationship that has turned toxic over the past year with heightened tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea. Saiki’s visit indicates that Abe is serious about seeking a rapprochement with China with regard to their bitter feud. Abe floated the idea—publicly—that he was ready to meet President Xi at any point, even as early as this September on the sidelines of the G20 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia. However, while Abe may be sincere in his approach, he has thus far failed to impress Beijing due his apparent circumvention of any conditions on future high-level talks. Xi is looking for a concession from Tokyo—even if heavily nuanced—on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute. But while China’s Foreign Ministry has swiftly rejected any prediction of a summit, there is more genuine work happening behind the scenes to make this a reality. Beijing wants to put off talk of a leader’s summit at least until after these important “trigger” anniversaries (August 15 and September 11) have passed.
A third reason why Japan-China ties won’t disintegrate is the growing rift between Tokyo and Seoul which is increasing pressure on Abe as well. Things have deteriorated so much that recent polls show a marked increase in the public perception that Japan-Korea ties are unhealthy. A recent collaborative poll, by Genron NPO in Japan and the East Asia Institute in Korea, indicates that 71 percent of Japanese polled feel the state of bilateral relations is bad, while 78 percent agree in Korea. Making matters worse, the Koreans polled admitted that they feel closer to China than Japan.
Korea’s gradual drift gives a peek at its tacit hedging campaign between China and the US. Han Suk-hee, professor at Yonsei University, has written on this balancing act: “China's rise puts South Korea in a strategic dilemma between the United States and China. Traditionally, South Korea has been a close U.S. ally. The ROK-U.S. alliance has been a major factor in South Korea's peace and political and economic success. Due to China's consistent rise, market growth, and size, however, South Korea is increasingly dependent on China's economy. Consequently, South Korea has to dually manage its security, which is grounded in the ROK-U.S. alliance, and its economic well-being, which is dependent on the ROK-China strategic cooperative partnership.” While warmer ties between China and Korea may be seen as a negative for the Tokyo-Beijing relationship, the opposite may be true. In reality, such a move has created a push for Japan to remain involved and integrated (by attending the trilateral summits and maintaining talks at the CJK FTA for example) with both of its regional neighbors.