China-Japan relations

Shinzo Abe must rethink his stance if there is to be an improvement in China-Japan ties

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 October, 2015, 2:09am
UPDATED : Thursday, 23 February, 2017, 4:55pm

China and Japan recognise the need for a warming of their icy relationship and are making efforts to ease tensions. A summit between President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe would herald that the thaw is well and truly under way and both sides are working towards that goal. But proving how much work remains, a visit by the highest-ranking Chinese official in three years and a personal letter from Abe hand-delivered to Xi have apparently achieved nothing other than show that more needs to be done. That is understandable given that history remains a sticking point.

Talks, no matter at what level, are, of course, a sign of progress. The trip to Japan by State Councillor Yang Jiechi and his meeting with Abe showed a willingness for the world's second- and third-biggest economies to resolve their differences. The sides agreed during the two-day visit last week to quickly put in place a crisis management system to prevent unintended clashes in the East China Sea over the disputed Diaoyu Islands, known as the Senkakus by Japan. Trade remains strong and as the National Day "golden week" flood of Chinese tourists proved, people-to-people ties are healthy.

But the nationalist ways of Abe and other members of his Liberal Democratic Party remain problematic. During his meeting with Yang, he expressed regret for China's successful effort to include Chinese documents related to the atrocities committed by Japanese soldiers at Nanjing in 1937 and 1938 in Unesco's memory of the World Register. Although he pledged not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine to the war dead this autumn, he also said China should move on from its "unfortunate past history". Such denial and a refusal to express sincere repentance for his country's brutal invasion and occupation of China, Korea and other parts of Asia during the first half of the last century are guaranteed to ensure relations remain strained.

Understandably, no progress seems to have been made on a meeting between Xi and Abe, or of a much talked about summit between the leaders of China, Japan and South Korea, last held in 2012. The personal letter from the Japanese prime minister inviting Xi to visit Japan, delivered by the chief of the junior partner of Japan's ruling coalition, Komeito, also elicited no commitment. The leaders had little more than an awkward handshake at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Beijing last November; better is to be hoped for at the next gathering in Manila next month, but Abe holds the key.