China-Japan relations

US tries to take the middle path in Sino-Japanese relations

Sonny Lo says in the face of the right-wing drift in Japanese politics, the increasingly hostile relationship between China and Japan has benefited from some skilful US diplomacy

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 02 January, 2014, 10:19am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

Since the Chinese declaration of an air defence identification zone in the East China Sea, the US has been adopting a skilful balancing strategy to rein in both Tokyo and Beijing. This strategy has been working well in several aspects.

First, when US Vice-President Joe Biden visited Japan shortly after the Chinese declaration, he avoided any move to make a joint announcement with Tokyo requesting that Beijing annul the air defence zone. And, to Tokyo's surprise, Washington allowed American civilian airlines to submit their flight information to China.

The final US balancing act was to appeal to both China and Japan to establish a military liaison in order to avoid military accidents. To Washington, establishing conventions over the Chinese air defence zone is urgent.

The Japanese right-wing drift has been worrying. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine at the end of December triggered America's "disappointment".

Abe's visit was poorly timed, given that it followed a meeting between Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Cheng Yonghua, the Chinese ambassador to Japan. The closed-door meeting, described as a "rare courtesy call", had actually raised hopes on the Chinese side of a possible silver lining amid the right-wing drift in Japanese policy towards China. Unfortunately, Abe's visit to the Yasukuni shrine undid the goodwill of that meeting.

International concern about Japan's explicitly right-wing move should give Tokyo pause about the course it has adopted. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon said in a statement that "there is a need to be more sensitive to the feelings of others", implying that Tokyo should not do anything to reopen the wartime wounds of its neighbours like South Korea and China. Although Abe, during his visit to the shrine, emphasised that Japan attached great importance to peace, and that he wished Japan's neighbours to understand the nature of his visit, this message was by no means received.

The crux of the problem is that many Asian countries see the visit by Japanese leaders to the shrine as a symbol of historical tragedies. To the Japanese, such a visit reflects their culture of respecting the dead soldiers. Nonetheless, unless Japanese politicians acknowledge the political sensitivities of a visit to the shrine and desist, their neighbours' protests, if not necessarily overreactions, will continue.

Given America's part in the second world war, Washington would in no way wish to see a right-wing drift in Japanese politics. Japanese leaders need to appreciate that there is a clash between their political culture and the rest of Asia's, as well as America's.

Furthermore, Japanese politicians and leaders have to ponder how they should deal with China's rapid rise. The tensions over the Diaoyu Islands (the Senkakus in Japanese) have demonstrated difficulties on the part of Japanese leaders in responding to China's emergence.

Indeed, Beijing's foreign policy has gradually shifted from a position of "keeping a low profile and hiding its brightness" to a more assertive stance, in both diplomacy and military matters. Since China was politically and militarily humiliated by Japan during the past era of imperialism, it is legitimate for the People's Republic to be more assertive now in its military defence and foreign policy.

Japanese leaders have to appreciate that Chinese political culture attaches great importance to the value of face. They should understand that arguing with Chinese leaders openly and incessantly over territorial issues has caused the Chinese to feel they have lost face.

Japanese leaders should ask themselves whether some uninhabited islands are worth the sacrifice of friendly Sino-Japanese relations. After all, any sudden military accident with China would deal a heavy blow to Japan's economic interests in greater China, including Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macau.

Tokyo should not see Beijing as a political and military threat; instead, it should work with the US to engage the Chinese as China finds its place in the international order. Unfortunately, under Abe's leadership, Japan has been reacting to China's rapid rise by forming economic and military coalitions with any other Asian states. This has generated an impression of trying to "contain" Beijing.

The US has been providing military weapons to Japan to act as a deterrent against any Chinese military threat. From the perspective of realpolitik, this American strategy has been working well.

The Japanese military capability cannot be underestimated, as even Chinese military analysts have admitted. The regular joint US-Japanese military exercises have shown that only the superpower can shape Japanese foreign policy and military defence.

Undoubtedly, the US will continue to play a critical role in reining in Tokyo when it goes astray in foreign and defence policy, while engaging and calming Beijing in such a way that China and Japan will maintain friendly economic relations - despite all the rhetoric and military gestures over their disputed territories.

Sonny Lo is professor and head of the department of social sciences at the Hong Kong Institute of Education