China-Japan relations analysis II: APEC shows two sides of the same coin

Published on Backbench on 21 November 2014.

Behind cold handshakes, both countries are realistic about the need to warm up relations. At the most recent Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, President Xi JinPing and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe hinted what closer Chinese-Japanese relations might look like – with arguable the most awkward diplomatic handshake of all time.

‘There were no smiles or banter,’ reported International Business Times. ‘Instead, both men were stern-faced and when Abe attempted to speak to Xi, the latter simply turned away to face the cameras.’

It was no easy handshake. The two leaders were both playing to the public gallery domestic opinions, antagonised by the existence of the other, the root causes of which stretching back over a century. The PR stunt certainly paid off for Xi. Images of the handshake went viral on Weibo, an effort comparable to Kim Kardashian’s attempt to ‘break the internet’. There was even a drawing featuring Xi as Winnie the Pooh and Abe as Eeyore circulating online.

Nevertheless, the fact that a bilateral meeting between Abe and Xi took place at all is significant. The encounter was first of its kind in two years. It signals that, away from the cameras, both leaders are realistic and serious about repairing relations. So while we may see more of these cold hands from future Chinese presidents and Japanese premiers, the two country’s economic and security ties can simultaneously turn hot in years to come.

A closer look at public opinions in the second and third largest economies will help us understand the future of Asia-Pacific. Returning to the Genro/China Daily poll fromPart I of this analysis, we already know that both Chinese and Japanese publics anticipate military conflict with each other in the future. We also know that history – territorial disputes over Diaoyu/Senkaku, arguments over revisionist history textbooks, and Abe’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine – is the root cause of anguish.

However, although the ghosts of history often obstruct optimism, they have not always been at the forefront of diplomatic relations. 81% of the Chinese public, for example, believed the two countries’ relations ‘will improve or will probably improve’ in 2008, at the height China’s glories embodied in the Beijing Olympics as the West slumped into recession. That number has now fallen to 17.7% [figure 1]. In contrast, those who see this troubled relationship going downhill now top any other group, standing just shy of half of the respondents. A similar trend was found in Japan, where 36.8% of the public are also sceptical about the future of the two nations, with a mere 8% still optimistic about improvements.

[figure 1]

That is not to say Chinese and Japanese disregard the indispensible nature of their two countries’ relations. Those who argue this relationship is ‘important or relatively important’ polled consistently high. Despite decline in recent years – probably due to China’s increasingly assertive stance in territorial disputes and the US’s ‘return to the Pacific’ – the percentage of people who believe in the importance of China-Japan relations still stand at 65% and 70.6% respectively [figure 2]. Regardless of their concerns over history, it appears that public opinion in both countries welcome cooperation on the basis of economic realities.

[figure 2]

In fact, that cold handshake does not reflect recent progress in China-Japan diplomacy at all. Days before the summit in Beijing, China and Japan agreed to a document to ease tensions over territorial disputes. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’sstatement did not waste any words in dressing up the controversial issue of territorial disputes. Instead, it announced that the two sides ‘agreed to prevent the situation from aggravating through dialogue and consultation and establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies.’

Further, there is a groundbreaking element in this document: the unprecedented step to go beyond economic ties and embrace each other in security partnership. ‘The two sides have agreed to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogue through various multilateral and bilateral channels and to make efforts to build political mutual trust.’ This adds a new dimension to China-Japan relations and will dictate the fate of Asia-Pacific’s regional security.

Summing up these figures, it appears that China-Japan relations has promising potentials. It is essential that public opinion in the two countries favour more cooperation, without the pretext of detangling the complex web of history. People of both countries understand sensible talks are ongoing behind the PR stunts. The two countries may therefore return to a scene more familiar to observers before 1980s.

But that does paint a very rosy picture; the two countries still have some fundamental conflicts to contain. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s raison d’etre is the ‘national revival’ of the Central Kingdom – restoration of Chinese supremacy; whereas Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP)’s platform is to build a ‘beautiful country’ – a lionised Japan. It will require absolute restrain and political wisdom from both sides to maintain peace and prosperity in this seemingly stable region. All that it takes is a single mistake made in either Beijing or Tokyo – such as a swing to accommodate ultranationalist sentiments, and the whole of Asia-Pacific will be condemned to chaos once again.

By Noah Sin

Coming Soon…

In the next piece of this three-part-analysis, Noah will examine the recent developments in the region, especially efforts by both Japan and China to woo India and Australia.

Extended Reading…

For a more in depth study of the document between China and Japan concerning economic and security cooperation, read this article by Shannon Tiezzi in The Diplomat.

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