Sea of conflict

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 October, 2007, 12:00am

When he had been Japan's prime minister for less than two weeks, Shinzo Abe flew to China to try to build 'a future-oriented relationship' with Beijing. Sino-Japanese ties had been badly damaged under his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi. Twelve months later, Japan has another new prime minister, Yasuo Fukuda. He will probably revert to the norm for Japanese leaders - visiting Washington on his first overseas trip in office, which is likely to happen next month.

In a way, this is a good sign for Sino-Japanese relations: there is no crisis that Mr Fukuda must address. Mr Abe, in his brief tenure, succeeded in restoring a semblance of normality to the relationship, in particular by orchestrating an exchange of high-level visits. Premier Wen Jiabao made a highly successful visit to Japan in April, delivering a well-received speech to parliament.

No such visits took place in the five years of the Koizumi premiership. That's primarily because Mr Koizumi, despite Chinese protests, insisted on making regular visits to the Yasukuni Shrine - a symbol of Japanese nationalism where war criminals are honoured alongside the country's war dead. Mr Abe did not visit the shrine as prime minister, and Mr Fukuda has promised not to do so. So that issue, at least, has been defused for the time being.

But Sino-Japanese relations are by no means strong. One issue that needs high-level attention is the dispute over oil and gas resources in the East China Sea, where the two countries have overlapping claims. Beijing and Tokyo held their 10th round of talks since 2004 on the issue last Thursday, without any progress.

During Mr Wen's visit, the two countries agreed to speed up talks on joint development in disputed areas. Negotiators were supposed to report concrete measures to their leaders this autumn. However, unless there is a breakthrough soon, there will be no progress to report. To ensure movement, Beijing must make a political decision just as the Japanese leader made a political decision not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Left to their own devices, bureaucrats are unlikely to reach agreement.

After all, China has moved ahead of Japan to develop the undersea resources. The Japanese, to avoid antagonising Beijing, have been reluctant to begin exploitation. Now they fear that the Chinese may be extracting gas from the Japanese side even though the drilling is clearly on the Chinese side. One positive sign is that the new Chinese ambassador in Tokyo, Cui Tiankai , has agreed with Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura to work on settling the East China Sea dispute as well as to schedule another exchange of visits by their leaders.

These two issues seem to be linked. This is understandable since it might be difficult for Mr Fukuda to visit China in the absence of an agreement on the East China Sea. And, without a Fukuda visit, President Hu Jintao is unlikely to visit Japan in the spring. Then the relationship will rapidly spiral downwards.

Distrust between the two sides has been fuelled by incidents such as a Chinese nuclear submarine's intrusion into Japanese waters in 2004. Subsequently, Tokyo named China and North Korea as the only two potential threats.

Japan's Defence Agency has presented three scenarios that could lead to war between the two countries, involving Taiwan, the disputed Diaoyu islands and the East China Sea.

Beijing is concerned with Japanese actions, including Tokyo's announcement last week to deploy F-15 fighter jets on Okinawa, presumably for defence against China. Japan is also holding military exercises this week for the first time with the United States and Australia in the East China Sea.

Such developments would be seen as innocuous if relations between the two countries were good. In the present situation, each side is suspicious of the other. That's why there is a need for a political breakthrough, to develop a genuine, forward-looking relationship of trust.

Frank Ching is a Hong Kong-based writer and commentator