False smiles between China and Japan

15.04.07 Publication:

It is as if nothing ever happened. China’s prime minister, Wen Jiabao, has this week made the first visit to Tokyo by a Chinese leader for more than six years. That gap occurred because of bitter arguments between China and Japan over Japan´s’war-time conduct, over Japanese prime ministerial visits to a war shrine, over a maritime territorial dispute and much else. Last September, Japan replaced one nationalist prime minister, Junichiro Koizumi, with an even more nationalist one, Shinzo Abe. Last month, Mr Abe made a comment denying that the Japanese army used Chinese and Korean sex slaves during the war, the sort of thing that would normally inflame the Chinese. Yet Mr Wen has acted in Japan as if he were visiting some old friends, taking gifts and saying sweet things. The question is: can this sudden and improbable friendship be taken seriously?

            Two factors say that it will not last. One is that this year and next year offer special, temporary motivations for patching up quarrels. This year the reason is that it is the 70th anniversary of the worst events of the Sino-Japanese war, namely the start of Japan’s full invasion of China in July 1937 and in December the so-called “rape of Nanking”, when the Chinese claim Japanese troops slaughtered 300,000 civilians in China’s then capital. With anti-Japanese emotions always running high in the Chinese public, either of these occasions could provide an excuse for violent demonstrations if the politicians on either side were to be careless or reckless.

            Next year, the temporary motivation lies on the Chinese side: the summer Olympics in Beijing. This is China’s coming-of-age party, and the government wants nothing to spoil it. In 2004, another sporting event, the Asian soccer cup, prompted anti-Japanese violence among Chinese supporters when Japan won a game. If that sort of thing were to happen when Japanese athletes win medals next year, it would be highly disruptive and embarrassing.

            Japanese and Chinese diplomats would dispute this argument, at least in public. Doing their duty, they say that both China and Japan recognise that it is their mutual interest to resolve their quarrels and be good neighbours. There is $200 billion worth of annual trade at stake between the two countries, which last year grew but more slowly than that between China and Europe, thanks perhaps to the tensions. There is also Japanese companies’ foreign direct investment in China, which last year fell by 30%, though that still left Japan as the biggest foreign investor there if you exclude overseas Chinese and Taiwanese. And they both want to prevent North Korea’s dictator, Kim Jong Il, from making more trouble with his nuclear weapons programme.

            That is true, but not convincing. For the second factor that says the friendship won’t last is something that is hard to suppress. It is that Japan is a democracy, in which a small but important group of politicians in the ruling Liberal Democratic Party believe that Japan should not be emulating Germany by apologising deeply and unreservedly for its wartime actions. They argue that Japan invaded China for understandable reasons, that Japan was thereby acting in a similar way to the European imperial powers in Asia such as Britain, France and Holland, and that Japan’s main sin was to have lost. Many Japanese disagree with this view. But it will not go away and will continue to undermine Japanese diplomats’ efforts to build better relationships with the neighbours. Especially as both the current prime minister and his foreign minister belong to this small group of revisionist politicians.

            Even ideologues can be pragmatic for a while; and Mr Abe may believe that he can exploit China’s pre-Olympics desire for a quiet life to get a better deal on the two countries’ dispute over an undersea oil-and-gas field. But the Chinese leaders are also nationalists, and they too know that in safer times beyond 2008 it might be better to have an angry Chinese public protesting against the Japanese again rather than against the Communist government itself. So don’t be fooled. These two great Asian powers are born to be squabbling rivals, alas.