Sacrificed at the altar

PUBLISHED : Friday, 22 October, 2004, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 22 October, 2004, 12:00am

History continues to cloud China's relations with Japan. The visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi and other officials in his cabinet and party are a recurring irritant. This week, 79 lawmakers, among them the secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a former prime minister from the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, visited the shrine for an annual autumn festival.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry duly protested. Spokeswoman Zhang Qiyue said that correct recognition and treatment of historical issues concern the political basis of Sino-Japanese relations, and warned that Japanese leaders should treat the matter cautiously, showing due respect for the feelings of Chinese.

As much as Mr Koizumi says he wants a working relationship with China - and I think he is sincere - there will be no retreat on this contentious issue. There has been a qualitative shift in Japan's views of China and the appropriate bilateral discourse. China must recognise this change and be prepared to deal with it. Continued protests will not change Japanese behaviour.

Historians will see the turning point as president Jiang Zemin's 1998 trip to Japan. He used the precedent-setting visit to Japan by South Korean president Kim Dae-jung as his benchmark: he demanded that any statements reflect the same language and reach the same conclusions. Unfortunately, Mr Jiang was not prepared to make the same concession: accept an apology and focus on future relations. Frustrated, his visit was a virtual poke in Japan's collective eye. Mr Jiang wore a Mao jacket throughout his tour and continually lectured the Japanese about history, even during a dinner speech at a meal hosted by the emperor.

Although a subsequent visit by premier Zhu Rongji in 2000 helped sooth some of the hurt feelings, the damage was done. No Japanese - and especially no self-respecting politician - could afford to ignore the poor manners displayed on the visit and, as a result, it shifted Japanese views of the terms of engagement with China.

That does not mean Tokyo will go out of its way to antagonise China, but a new balance has been struck. There will be no more bending over backwards to accommodate Beijing. And there will be no more turning a blind eye to behaviour that damages Japan's national interests. Mr Koizumi's behaviour provides proof. He is a savvy politician guided by his instincts. Thus, his continued visits to the shrine. While motivated in part by a sense that Japan needs to develop its patriotism, he also knows that he is not paying a domestic political cost for them.

In fact, Chinese protests look like interference in Japanese domestic politics, making the visits an act of principle - even to Japanese voters who disapprove of the nationalist message sent out by such visits. This week, Mr Koizumi said that paying respects at the shrine is a way to mourn Japanese war dead, adding that he could not understand China's opposition. In other words, the domestic political baseline has shifted when it comes to the Yasukuni Shrine. The proof is in the growing number of Japanese politicians following Mr Koizumi's lead. That means it will do Beijing no good to wait in the hope that his successor will think differently.

Relations between China and Japan are not destined to spiral downwards. Both countries need each other too much to allow that to happen; both governments understand that and want a positive relationship. But if the Yasukuni controversy will not go away, then they must work doubly hard to contain the fallout. Co-operation on other contentious issues, such as joint development of undersea resources and the safeguarding of energy supplies, is one option.

And, for better or worse, Beijing must try to escape its bind. It must come up with a face-saving way to take the spotlight off the shrine visits. It may seem unfair or unjust, but China has to move beyond history; to look forward, not back.

Brad Glosserman is director of research at Pacific Forum CSIS, a Honolulu-based think-tank