Deep-rooted issues continue to cloud Sino-Japan ties

Panellists at forum cite hegemonic tendencies, conflicting claims over Senkaku/Diaoyu islets

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) shakes hands with China's President Xi Jinping prior to their bilateral meeting in Vladivostok, Russia, on Sept 12, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

While China and Japan hope to improve ties with a three-day visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing starting on Oct 25, the annual Tokyo-Beijing Forum yesterday showed how the two countries remain poles apart on many issues.

Former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda, in his opening speech, urged the two countries to set aside their soured relationship and collaborate to uphold an international world order that has been fractured by protectionism.

"Unless we solve our bilateral conflict, we cannot solve global issues together, and the rest of the world will never follow our lead," said Mr Fukuda, who was premier from 2007 to 2008.

But Japanese and Chinese panellists later argued over what they saw as hegemonic tendencies in each other's country, conflicting sovereign claims over the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islets, and China's purported lack of rigour in maintaining international financial and trade standards.

Such longstanding disagreements seem unlikely to be resolved, even as Mr Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping called for a fresh start in bilateral ties as they mark the 40th anniversary of a landmark bilateral peace and friendship treaty inked on Oct 23, 1978.

Mr Abe will be the first Japanese prime minister to visit China for bilateral meetings since December 2011, and his visit comes after Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in May became the first Chinese premier to visit Tokyo since May 2011.

The Japanese leader will meet Mr Xi and Mr Li on Oct 26.

Mr Xi, meanwhile, is expected to visit Japan next year.

The high-level visits, the panellists said, will catalyse a foundation of trust that will allow Asia's top two economies to turn a page on their often contentious relationship.

They noted many emerging areas in which the two countries can collaborate, such as financial services, electric vehicles, nursing care for the elderly and environment management. Another area is third-country infrastructure development, potentially under China's Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) and Japan's Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy (FOIPS).

Still, while Japan has eased its stance towards the BRI, Japanese panellists at the forum noted how some Chinese infrastructure projects end up crippling their recipient countries with massive debt.

Dr Yang Bojiang, deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said it will be difficult for Beijing to agree to joint initiatives being linked to the FOIPS because of a lack of clarity on what the strategy means precisely.

"The US, Japan, Australia and India all have some version of FOIPS, but each with a different definition," he said. "I think Japan needs to strengthen its explanation or to dig even deeper. It cannot be that if (US Secretary of State Mike) Pompeo raises something, Japan, India and Australia react with different degrees of enthusiasm."

Dr Yang also disagreed with a suggestion that China was disregarding international norms by refusing to accept a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that dismissed Beijing's nine-dash line claim over a large area of the South China Sea.

"It does not mean that if China does not accept something then it is against international norms," he said. "Japan now has territorial disputes with China, South Korea and Russia. If one of them raises something with the tribunal and the ruling goes against Japan, will Japan really accept the judgment?"

Japan sees China as a key security threat, given the latter's military build-up in the South China Sea and repeated intrusions into waters near the disputed islets in the East China Sea.

"In Japan, there are many people who think China is hegemonic because Chinese ships are entering Japanese waters," said Lower House lawmaker Yuichiro Tamaki, who leads the opposition Democratic Party for the People.

But Peking University's Professor Jia Qingguo stressed that standing up for one's sovereignty in a territorial dispute should not be equated with hegemony. Referring to the Dokdo islets administered by South Korea and which are claimed by Japan and called Takeshima by the Japanese, Prof Jia said: "Japan's moves on Dokdo have made the South Koreans unhappy. Does this mean Japan is hegemonic?"

Dr Yang also questioned Japan's official stance on the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islets.

Tokyo believes that there is no sovereignty dispute over the islets that warrants any resolution, going by historical facts and international law. But Dr Yang asked if there could be any expectation for better bilateral ties if one party refuses to acknowledge there was an issue.

In response, the Japanese panellists said this was an area that still requires trust building.

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A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 15, 2018, with the headline Deep-rooted issues continue to cloud Sino-Japan ties. Subscribe