Here we go again. Problems over history and territory are once again front and center in Northeast Asia, drawing attention to Japan’s troubled relations with China and South Korea. Despite new leadership in all three countries—and the small chance that they would steer relations in a new direction—old problems are still being dealt with by old tools. Instead of following through with scheduled meetings that provide venues for dialogue, a diplomatic boycott of Japan has ensued. A new approach to regional diplomacy is needed. While it may seem counterintuitive, leaders in Seoul and Beijing should take the lead in reaching out to Tokyo even as their disagreements over history and territory continue.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not among them, but 171 Japanese cabinet ministers and lawmakers recently visited Yasukuni Shrine. The shrine honors some 2.5 million Japanese who died building modern Japan, including those who died in World War Two. Controversially, this includes fourteen convicted Class A war criminals whose souls were enshrined there in the 1970s.
Concurrently, the ongoing territorial dispute between Japan and China escalated. The uninhabited islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, are claimed by both countries (and Taiwan) but administered by Japan. The waters that surround the islands are rich in fish and potentially maritime gas fields. Responding to a flotilla of Japanese that entered the disputed waters, China moved to dispel them by dispatching eight Chinese patrol vessels into waters Japan claims as its own, the largest ever intrusion by Chinese ships. Thirteen Japanese coast-guard vessels, also on hand, worked to escort all of them out of the disputed waters. Responding in parliament about what he would do if Chinese landed on the islands, PM Abe said they would be forcibly removed.
In response to the sequence of events, Beijing and Seoul condemned Japanese actions. They argued that the Yasukuni visits demonstrate Japan’s failure to acknowledge its militaristic past. As a sign of protest, South Korea canceled a scheduled visit of its foreign minister to Japan. China, also in a sign of protest, made it increasingly difficult for Japanese lawmakers scheduled to meet Xi Jinping in Beijing to the point that the lawmakers had no choice but to call off their visit. Similarly, in response to the territorial dispute, China asked South Korea to postpone the annual trilateral summit meeting scheduled this month (which Seoul would chair) for the leaders of China, South Korea and Japan.
This is not the first time that Beijing and Seoul cancelled scheduled meetings to protest comments or actions by Japanese officials regarding issues of history or territory. Such cancellations seem to be a standard element in their diplomatic toolkits, and—with criticism of Japan dominating the headlines—no one ever seems to question these actions.
Chinese and South Koreans consistently state that visits to Yasukuni demonstrate how unseriously Japan takes its own history. When lawmakers—and particularly cabinet members—visit the shrine, it is seen as evidence that Japan as a country and as a government feels no genuine remorse for its wartime deeds. At its most extreme, these visits are seen as evidence of Japan’s brewing nationalism.
Regardless of whether or not this is the correct barometer of Japanese remorse, cancelling meetings is the wrong approach. It does nothing to promote Beijing or Seoul’s complaints with Japanese officials and cancelling meetings serves to reinforce negative perceptions of China and South Korea among the Japanese public.
Furthermore, these acts of protest do little harm to Japan. While Chinese and Koreans may believe that actions by Japanese lawmakers will isolate Japan or make it difficult to win the trust of the international community, these views seem largely limited to China and South Korea. Japanese shrine visits or maritime patrols do not become agenda items at major international gatherings (unlike Chinese maritime behavior in the South China Sea). Moreover, Japan is anything but isolated—it continues to be considered as an economic and increasingly security partner by many countries, including many in Asia. Rather than being seen as an increasingly dangerous country on the cusp of remilitarization, Japan is seen as having the most positive influence in the world according to the BBC World Service’s 2012 Country Ratings Poll.
Perhaps most importantly, Beijing and Seoul’s responses inhibit vital cooperation with Japan on regional issues. The current problem with North Korea is a perfect example. With the cancellation of South Korea’s foreign minister to Japan, the two countries miss an opportunity to discuss joint stances and possible actions to be taken along with the US. Even more unfortunate is the postponement of the trilateral summit. The postponement would have brought together South Korean president Park Geun-hye, Chinese premier Li Keqiang and Japanese prime minister Abe for the first time where, arguably, they could better understand each other’s interests and approaches and pool their ideas toward a more unified response. Instead of separating bilateral issues from regional ones, China and South Korea are effectively allowing their bilateral complaints with Japan to disturb greater regional efforts.
Make no mistake, Japan bears plenty of responsibility for its tense relations with its neighbors. Japanese lawmakers should be more aware that their visits are responsible for disrupting relations with Japan’s neighbors. At very least, they need to understand that despite their benign intentions, paying tribute at Yasukuni is interpreted by China and South Korea as paying tribute to the past imperial order under which they were subjugated. Comments by deputy prime minister and finance minister Taro Aso—that he does not believe visiting Yasukuni affects Japan’s bilateral relations—demonstrate that some very high-ranking officials fail to realize this. Likewise, lawmakers need to be savvier about how to balance positive ties with both domestic constituents and Japan’s neighbors. Knowing his reputation as a nationalist hawk in China and South Korea, PM Abe should be careful when making comments about forcefully removing people from the disputed islands. While his comments may be intended to a domestic audience to demonstrate his determination to protect Japanese interests, they are interpreted as provocative and symbolic of Japan’s return to its militaristic past by its neighbors.
Criticism of Japan on how it handles its history or territorial disputes becomes so heated that we tend to lose sight of what responsibility—if any—other countries have in advancing future-oriented relations with Japan. It is often said that Japan should act more like Germany, meaning that Japan has not shown contrition to the same level as Germany. Yet the analogy usually stops there. If Japan should act more like Germany, then China and South Korea need to act more like France. After all, it was France that reached out to Germany with the idea of creating a European Coal and Steel Community before West German Chancellor Konrad Adenauer’s 1951 acknowledgement of the “immeasurable suffering” Germany caused.
Japanese officials have made numerous apologies, paid reparations, and made other gestures of remorse over the years in an effort to reconcile for Imperialist Japan’s deeds, but reconciliation is not a one way process. If China and Korea truly want reconciliation, they too need to reach out to Japan, not only in publically recognizing and praising its apologies and efforts, but in trying to work with Japan to deal with common concerns, even when some lawmakers do something or say something that Seoul and Beijing believe is particularly egregious. This includes even appalling comments such as Osaka mayor Toru Hashimoto’s recent thoughts on the necessity of wartime comfort women. Reaching out to Japan is not rewarding it for perceived bad behavior, but embracing dialogue for better mutual understanding. If the current practice of snubbing Japan to protest something does not work, perhaps it is time for a new tool in the diplomatic toolkit. Breaking the cycle of historical animosity requires efforts by all parties, but only missed opportunities occur if cancelling meetings remains the chosen method of diplomacy.
Jeffrey W. Hornung is an associate professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies in Honolulu and an adjunct fellow with the Office of the Japan Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C. The views expressed in this article are his alone.
Image: Wikimedia Commons/Kakidai. CC BY-SA 3.0.