China and Japan must get ties back on an even keel

It is in their economic interests, as well as those of the international community, that they have good diplomatic relations

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 12 March, 2016, 11:17pm
UPDATED : Saturday, 12 March, 2016, 11:17pm

Among the duties of a foreign minister is to help keep relations with other countries on an even keel. Ties between China and Japan have been especially off-kilter for the past four years, so Wang Yi’s (王毅) job has been particularly challenging. Despite modest diplomatic gains last year, he still offered a gloomy outlook in his annual assessment on the sidelines of the NPC session. There would seem to be a bright spot, though: the summit of the Group of 20 world powers in Hangzhou in September. China and Japan are important members of the elite club, being the world’s second- and third-biggest economies.

It is in their economic interests, as well as those of the international community, that they have good diplomatic relations. Yet history, misunderstandings and misperceptions lie in the way, not helped by the Japanese government’s nationalist ways. Ties froze in 2012 when several of the islands in the Diaoyu chain, known in Japan as the Senkaku, were nationalised. In the following year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni Shrine that honours the nation’s war dead. Efforts to end the chill began with a brief meeting between President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Abe during the 2014 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing, and the thaw continued last year with security and financial talks and the resumption of summits between China, South Korea and Japan.

There has been no progress since, though, with Japan siding with the US in boosting the military capacity of nations contesting Chinese territorial claims in the South China Sea. It has agreed to lease five aircraft to the Philippines’ navy to help with surveillance and will soon hold joint naval exercises with Vietnam. Tokyo is still holding out on joining the Beijing-founded Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, an effort to improve the regional economy through cooperation and development. Wang understandably saw the future of relations bleakly, contending that Japan “should think hard and think it through whether to treat China as friend or foe, partner or opponent”.

China has not always clearly articulated its position on regional and international affairs. Its record on dispute resolution could have been better. Efforts to communicate and explain have to improve. But its position on not having ambitions to dominate or threaten other nations has always been clear. Japanese leaders have to better understand Chinese intentions and be sensitive to history. Talks at all levels are the best way forward and China being this year’s G20 host offers a golden opportunity.