China yesterday criticised Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's decision to push two security Bills through Parliament but tempered its comments, in what analysts said was a bid to avoid giving impetus to the controversial legislation.
China's top diplomat, State Councillor Yang Jiechi, yesterday said China expressed "serious concerns" about Japan's unprecedented move, which could see Japanese troops fighting abroad for the first time since World War II.
Due to historical reasons, Tokyo's actions "cannot help but cause neighbouring countries and the international community to have misgivings about whether Japan is giving up its exclusively defence-oriented policy", he said.
China and Japan have always had a difficult relationship over the latter's perceived lack of repentance over atrocities committed during World War II. China also views itself as a target of Japan's current hawkish stance and the United States' pivot to Asia.
But Beijing's reaction to the latest news has been relatively restrained, noted International Crisis Group senior analyst and Sino-Japan expert Xie Yanmei. "China has realised that a singularly hardline policy towards Japan and a harsh reaction would only help Mr Abe win public support for his security agenda," she told The Straits Times.
Instead, it attempted yesterday to separate the government's actions from the reactions of the Japanese public. In the reaction to the security Bills, China's Foreign and Defence ministries both pointed out the "strong objection" from the Japanese public, as well as from scholars and legal organisations.
"We solemnly urge Japan to draw hard lessons from history, stick to the path of peaceful development, respect the major security concerns of its Asian neighbours, and refrain from jeopardising China's sovereignty and security interests or crippling regional peace and stability," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Hua Chunying.
A commentary in the overseas edition of the People's Daily said Mr Abe's "reckless actions will only lead to historical shame".
Despite these developments, Mr Yang yesterday told visiting Japanese National Security Council head Shotaro Yachi that China is preparing for "high-level political dialogue" with Japan, fuelling speculation of an impending meeting between Mr Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping amid a thaw in ties.
Sino-Japan expert Jiang Yuechun said bilateral relations are unlikely to be immediately hurt, given that the proposed Bills had already been approved by Japan's Cabinet in May. "The impact of this latest news isn't direct," he told The Straits Times. "But moves like this will continue to shape China's long-term calculation of how to handle Japan."