Thursday, May 8, 2008

Mr. Hu's relentlessly upbeat visit

Chinese President Hu Jintao will leave Japan Saturday after a five-day visit, a visit that the Chinese Communist Party's external relations bureau has described as a "great success."

(Photo from the Office of the Prime Minister)

It is hard to dispute that, as far as symbolism goes, the visit was indeed a success. Mr. Hu and Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo showed that the relationship is on an even keel, and Mr. Hu, by staying longer in Japan than in any other country (a meaningful statement considering his relentless globe trotting), showed Japan that China still finds value in a close relationship with its wealthier (for now) neighbor. The two leaders reaffirmed the "strategic, reciprocal relationship" approach to Sino-Japanese relations developed during Abe Shinzo's premiership.

In a joint statement, the two leaders agreed to a five-point program to enhance peaceful cooperation between Japan and China: (1) political confidence-building measures, including annual summits between heads of state and government, exchanges between parties and legislatures, and high-level visits and talks in the security realm; (2) cultural and personal exchanges; (3) reciprocal cooperation in the areas of energy and the environment, trade, finance, investment, and other economic sectors, continuation of the high-level economic dialog, and making the East China Sea a sea of "peace, cooperation, and friendship;" (4) cooperation in East Asia, including a commitment to the six-party process, with China welcoming normalization of Japanese-North Korea relations following resolution of "various problems," and the realization of an East Asian region grounded in openness, transparency, and inclusiveness; and (5) cooperation to resolve global problems and combat global warming, energy shortages, and infectious diseases (for China this latter effort starts at home).

As one might expect, there is little of substance in the joint agreement. MOFA has provided a list of concrete steps that will be taken in the coming months, but for the most part these are limited to scheduled summit meetings, visits, and exchanges. I'm certainly not complaining about that — the more interaction between the two governments and peoples, the better — but this week's summitry was more about "agreeing to pursue agreement" and establishing a new framework for Sino-Japanese relations than reaching substantive agreement on the real issues that haunt the bilateral agenda.

Reading the transcript of the joint press conference with Mr. Hu and Mr. Fukuda held on Wednesday, it is clear that both governments worked hard to keep the tone positive. The only reference to bilateral history was Mr. Hu's noting that "there are more than 2,000 years of history of friendly interaction between the peoples of Japan and China." The prevailing, tacit agreement in Sino-Japanese — and now, under President Lee Myung-bak, Japanese-South Korean — relations seems to be that all governments concerned will follow the Basil Fawlty line: "Don't mention the war." Unpleasantness over Tibet and poisoned gyoza was dispatched with ease in questioning; indeed, Mr. Hu, questioned about discussions with the Dalai Lama's representatives before the summit, drew a hard line, stating that it is now the responsibility of the Dalai Lama's "side" to forswear violence, separatist activities, and efforts to wreck the Olympics. The two leaders remained focused largely on enhanced political and economic times.

It is worth noting the difference in Japanese and Chinese visions. Mr. Fukuda spoke largely of the bilateral relationship; Mr. Hu spoke of the bilateral relationship, but embedded it in a regional and global context. In his remarks at the press conference, Mr. Hu spoke frequently of mechanisms for bilateral and regional cooperations. Wannabe dragon slayers may think that talk by Chinese officials about multilateral cooperation is a ploy to disarm potential enemies, but I think that may be overly cynical. China clearly recognizes the value of regional institutions, even with Japanese involvement (that might dilute China's power within said institutions). Judging by this summit, there is an appreciation in Beijing that it is better to placate Japan and have it play a constructive role in the region than to have an embittered Japan drawn to fantasies of containing China. The China on display at the joint press conference was a confident regional leader dedicated to creating a new East Asian order — hence there was no mention of the US (or Taiwan) by either leader.

There is nothing the US can or should do about this: Japan needs stable, cordial relations with both the US and China. Indeed, perhaps the more Japan undertakes initiatives outside the US-Japan alliance, the healthier the alliance will become, as Japan will feel less obligated to do Washington's bidding for lack of other options.

The question now is whether this approach is sustainable within Japan. For months now, the LDP's ideological conservatives and their allies in the media have been hammering Mr. Fukuda for being soft on China, especially in regard to Tibet and the poisoned gyoza issue. The "True Conservative Policy Research Group," the seat of the conservative ideologues within the LDP, has been particularly relentless in its criticism of Mr. Fukuda.

In a Mainichi article reviewing the group's opposition to Mr. Fukuda's China policy, one member is quoted as saying, "China policy will be one important theme in the next party president election. If Mr. Aso enters the presidential election, most of the members will shift their support to him." This last line is not particularly surprising — I've assumed from the beginning that Nakagawa Shoichi's study group is at least in part a committee to elect Aso Taro — but this article as a whole shows that the conservative approach to China remains bankrupt. The conservatives still have nothing constructive to offer. They would still rather harangue China for its failings than outline a way forward.

While Mr. Abe's overtures to China suggest that a conservative prime minister can still pursue a positive relationship with China, I fear that an Aso government — particularly an Aso government accompanied by a McCain administration calling for a League of Nations Democracies — would be considerably less forward-looking in its China policy. Mr. Aso might not necessarily return Sino-Japanese relations to the Koizumi-era deep freeze, although a glance at this speech he gave in 2006 on Yasukuni, in which he fails to mention the enshrined Class-A war criminals, suggests that Mr. Aso might have a devastating impact on the latest Sino-Japanese rapprochement; Mr. Aso and his comrades will most likely not embrace the Fawlty line. With Mr. Fukuda enfeebled and Mr. Aso positioning himself to take the premiership, there may yet be bumps ahead, sooner rather than later.

That said, I suspect that over the long term, the ability of China hawks in both Japan and the US to freeze or rollback cooperative ventures with China will be limited, provided that Beijing continues to talk about cooperative mechanisms and regional order. The challenge is making it to the long term with the least amount of backsliding due to agitation by conservatives.

UPDATE: Perhaps as part of the ongoing process of reinventing himself, Mr. Aso praised the talks as being effective on the tainted gyoza problem.


Anonymous said...

Troubled by your hands off views on China... hands off by Japan hands off by America. ("America can and should do nothing...")

China must be contained and forced to change its political system. Good if Japan and the United States will face down China and usurp Chinese interests regionally until this happens. China must be harrassed... it is the only language the goons understand.
If it takes an evil nationalist like Aso to support the U.S. policy, then so be it.

A McCain Administration can be expected to follow in the steps of the very successful Bush-Cheney Asia policy, and to even go farther with a League of Democracies. Such a new global power will weaken the United Nations and dictatorships (which are of course self-reinforcing), strengthen democracies, and continue the uni-polar world order that is the only way future world wars can be avoided.

J said...

One thing anonymous must understand is the US has no business imposing its democratic ideology on everyone.

Bush-Cheney Asia policy successful? China's gotten stronger in the South China Sea and North Korea has nuclear weapons. Myanmar remains secluded while Pakistan is messed up, for crying out loud.

A uni-polar world the way to go to avoid war? Not if draft-dodgin chickenhawk neocons continue to exist.

tornadoes28 said...

The hawks in the Bush admin solved nothing. Their philosophy has accomplished nothing but damaged the image of the United States worldwide.

Japan would be wise to not follow that path. And I pray that if McCain is elected, he will not make these same mistakes that Bush made.

China can still be influenced through means other then agressive hawk philosophies.

J said...

I totally agree with tornadoes28.

US leverage is more feeble now because of the disasters of the Bush-Cheney administration.