China-Japan relations

Shinzo Abe's men can heal rift with China

Newly re-elected LDP has good channels of communication with Beijing, and should be able to bring relations back from the brink

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 31 January, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

Relations between Japan and China may be perilously low, but a new government in Tokyo - ironically, a right-of-centre administration - heralds hope that differences might be patched up, and sooner rather than later.

The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) government, ousted in December, was hampered by relative inexperience in dealing with China and a lack of direct contact with its counterparts in Beijing, analysts in Japan say. But that has been rectified with the return of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party.

"My own sources are telling me that there were insufficient lines of communication between the two governments when the row over the Senkaku [or Diaoyu] Islands first came up. The foreign ministry here in Japan got the false impression that the purchase of the islands would be sufficient to calm the waters," said Jun Okumura, an analyst with the Eurasia Group, referring to Tokyo's decision last year to buy from a Japanese family the disputed islands that are at the heart of Sino-Japanese difficulties.

"That very quickly became a diplomatic disaster and everyone was suddenly basically covering their behinds," he added.

With the DPJ out of office, the LDP is now able to take advantage of normalisation treaties signed in the 1970s by the predecessors of the present party and its counterparts in Beijing.

"The LDP has a far better relationship with China than the last government and it has already sent [Natsuo] Yamaguchi, the head of its ally, New Komeito, to Beijing for talks," Okumura said. Masahiko Komura, vice-president of the LDP and an advocate of closer ties with China, will visit Beijing next month.

"It is very important that we show China that Japan is not all about Shintaro Ishihara and the right-wing," he added, referring to the firebrand former governor of Tokyo.

Uichiro Niwa, the former Japanese ambassador to Beijing, suggested on Monday that discussions between the two sides were already taking place behind the scenes in an effort to calm the situation.

Okumura believes that there is a political will to reduce the tension on both sides, but adds that much now depends on how China's surveillance vessels, warships and particularly its aircraft behave in the coming months.

"Essentially, the Chinese need some indication for their own domestic audience that the Japanese side has backed off," Okumura said.

Both sides will be walking a tightrope of appeasing their home crowds - the online community and military in China and the right wing in Japan - and without appearing to have given too much away.

For Japan, the bottom line will be halting forays by Chinese ships and aircraft into Japanese territorial waters. But Okumura said that it would be unreasonable to simultaneously insist on the Chinese not entering the so-called contiguous zone that lies just beyond Japanese waters, however irritating such visits might be to Japan. "If these visits [to the contiguous zone] become significantly less frequent, then that will be taken as an acceptable sign to Tokyo," he said.

The biggest concern, he added, was over incidents involving aircraft. Interceptors from Japan's Air Self-Defence Force are scrambled whenever there is an incursion, forcing China to respond in kind.

Okumura said: "That makes it a national security and military confrontation, and that has to be stopped if both sides want the situation to stabilise at all."