Japan & China: Room for Rapproachment?

07 Nov, 2013    ·   4167

Angana Guha Roy makes recommendations to overcome the stalemate in bilateral relations

fJapan and China commemorated the 35th anniversary of their Bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship in a low key symposium in October this year. The commemoration coincided with the pessimism that marked their recent row over Senkaku Island and the Japanese delegate’s visit to Yasukuni Shrine. These two major economies are rivals inducing threat perception in the other. On the one hand, China has an active weapons programme supported by a strong expanding defence budget that has grown by double-digit rates for 17 consecutive years. On the other hand, although Japan has a relatively low military profile, with its ‘no-war’ constitution and strong alliance with the US, its defence-relevant technology is sophisticated enough to challenge its neighbour.

Their century-old hostile relationship has prevented East Asia from progressing towards any idea of designing a regional security architecture to ensure peaceful development. In the wake of the existing state of affairs, few noticeable rapprochement efforts have been adopted over the years to ease the prevailing tension .The question is, how effective have the rapprochement efforts been in offering peacemaking solutions? What could be other plausible ways to improve the existing efforts?

An Attempt at Rapprochement
The diplomatic endeavours for rapprochement in the backdrop of the contesting governments over prevailing disputes leave little room for any compromise, no matter how many CBM or CMMs come their way to offer solutions. The most interesting part is that the print and digital media in Japan and China were simultaneously covering the commemoration of their three decade-old Friendship Treaty and their recent ‘cold-word war’ over their sovereign claims on the Senkaku/Diaoyu and the symbol of Japanese militarism, Yasukuni. This is an example of how Japan-China relations are defined by the simultaneous working of their conflict-peace dynamic.

Unfortunately, the existing peace-building efforts are ineffective and the proposed ones don’t come with an outline plan or research-based recommendation to carry forward the peace initiatives unhindered. One may cite the nine year old Tokyo-Beijing Forum in this context. It believes in the power of dialogue and public diplomacy but the prevailing rivalry has repeatedly overshadowed any sort of furtherance in their bilateral relations. This was fairly reflected in the international media that came out with reports like, ‘China-Japan relations take turn for worse’ or ‘China-Japan relations increasingly strained’, on the eve of the Beijing-Tokyo Forum conclusion.

Opinion-Based Diplomacy: A Way Forward?
Since inter-governmental diplomacy seems unable to offer any effective solutions, the Tokyo-Beijing Forum has pointed out the role the private sector can play to help resolve diplomatic problems in the long-run. The Genron NPO has come up with what can be called ‘opinion-based diplomacy’ for the kind of diplomacy that the private sector can engage in. It states that public opinion should display its power to help improve the situation. This recommendation was based on a series of recent opinion surveys in Japan and China in which about 90 per cent of respondents on both sides expressed adverse feelings toward each other's country. In the meanwhile, about 70 per cent of them recognised the importance of Japan-China relations.

A proper track II solution could also be considered, given its possibility. Professor Zheng Wang, in an article published in China-US Focus in December 2012, “From ‘Top-down’ to ‘Middle-out’: China and Japan can Reconcile Their Relationship,” explains: “In such conflicts, sustained dialogue is a more appropriate response to underlying causes. Indeed, a growing number of conflict resolution practitioners have been utilizing dialogue to transform deep-rooted conflicts...Chinese and Japanese representatives, including those considered “hard-liners” on each side, should begin meeting behind closed doors with competent facilitators. These meetings should continue at regular intervals for a period of several years. Considering the tendency of each country’s media to demonize the other, a journalists’ exchange program should be implemented to permit reporters and commentators to spend time living among the people in the other country.” 

At the end of the day, the rationality or positive outcome depends on the basis of how much attention these non-governmental initiatives (Opinion-based diplomacy or track II diplomacy) attract in comparison with government-to-government diplomacy.

Can Economic Ties Help Ride Together?
Despite the stalemate, the economic relations of the two Asian giants have improved this year after touching an historical low in 2012 post the nationalisation of Senkaku Islands, with increased business, non-governmental connections and bilateral trade. On the basis of the high dependency that the two economies share, the arena of economic cooperation could be exploited to expand the realm of engagement.

Look Back to Step Forward
Two contentious issues that figures in the bone of contention list between Japan and China bilateral are the claims of sovereignty over Senkaku Islands after Japan nationalised it, and the Japanese delegate’s visit to Yasukuni shrine. These are matters rooted in history. The question of the legitimacy of ownership and the psychological warfare over Yasukuni shrine should be enquired through history. A step back is required to take a step forward.