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Sino-Japanese relations warming up following Aso’s Beijing Sojourn

May 22, 2009

On the invitation of Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso paid an official visit to China on April 29-30. This was Aso’s first official visit to China since he took office in September 2008. Aso’s visit is significant in more than one way. Being the first between leaders of the two countries in 2009, it was important as it came after a number of exchanges of high level visits in 2008. Aso’s visit was expected to advance China-Japan strategic relations further.

Sino-Japanese relations are considered significant not only due to friendly relations between the two states that date back more than 2000 years, but also because they are considered two major powers of present day Asia. Although historical factors like Japanese isolationist policy, Japanese war crimes in China etc., deterred the two East Asian neighours from reaching out to each other, the signing of the Joint Statement in 1972 norrmalized bilateral relations. Since then, the 1972 Joint statement, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship (1978) and the Sino-Japanese Joint Declaration (1998) continue to be the bedrock for friendly cooperative relations between the two countries. In 1998, Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine enshrining 14 Japanese Class A war criminals hurt the sentiments of the Chinese people. This led to a ‘frosty’ bilateral relationship between the two, which changed in October 2006 when Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China breaking the ice. The two countries agreed to foster mutually beneficial relations based on common strategic interests in a bid to realize ‘peaceful coexistence friendship for generations, mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.’ Following Abe’s visit, Premier Wen Jiabao’s April 2007 Tokyo visit and December 2007 Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s Beijing visit helped strengthen Sino-Japanese bilateral relations further. Then during President Hu Jintao’s ‘warm spring’ state visit to Japan in May 2008, both the countries issued a joint statement promising complete promotion of strategic and mutually beneficial relations. The ‘China-Japan Exchange Year of Culture and Sports’ (2007) and the ‘China-Japan Friendly Exchange Year of the Youth’ (2008) also ushered in a new era in the cultural exchanges and exchanges between the younger generations of the two countries. Subsequently, bilateral economic and trade relations received impetus, with two-way trade galloping by 13.8 percent in 2007.

Japanese Prime Minister Taro Aso, before taking up the post, expressed hope to strengthen Japan-China relations by promoting friendly relations. Subsequently, Aso met with high-level Chinese delegates at various multilateral fora and continued to emphasize the necessity of deepening mutual understanding and trust for the advancement of strategic and mutually beneficial ties between Japan and China. During Aso’s recent visit to Beijing, it was expected that a step would be taken to advance strategic and mutually friendly relations between the two states.

Economic issues dominated the discussion during Aso’s visit. In April, 2009, the IMF predicted that Japan’s economy will shrink by 6.2 percent during the course of the year, while economic growth for China will be around 6.5 percent. China, being the largest trading partner of Japan, it is only natural that both the states discuss the possible strategies to be adopted to deal with the problems caused by the ongoing global economic meltdown. As the bilateral trade volume has already dropped by 24 percent to $46 billion in the first quarter of 2009, during Aso’s visit, Chinese Premier Hu Jintao stated that “with the international financial crisis looming and bilateral trade declining, both countries should take effective measures to boost our trade and investment.” Hu also proposed both countries step up information sharing and policy coordination, work more closely on key sectors of energy-conservation and environmental projects, information communication and advanced technology. Aso called for the maintenance of close high-level communication and better coordination between the two countries on the global economic down turn.

During his interaction with his Chinese counterpart Wen Jiabao, Aso also agreed to join hands with China in reviving the Asian and world economies. While calling the China-Japan relationship as “one of the most important bilateral relationships” in the world, Wen proposed the promotion of multilaterization of the Chiang Mai Initiative (a bilateral currency swap arrangement to help countries tackle a possible foreign capital flow shortage) and the construction of the Asian bond market. Japan, China, South Korea and ASEAN states have already agreed to inject 120 billion U.S. dollars into the Chiang Mai Initiative Multilaterization, the regional foreign reserve pool to deal with a financial crisis in the future. Wen Jinbao also urged both the states to firmly oppose trade protectionism, strengthen international financial monitoring and seek positive results in the reform of the international financial system. Both Aso and Wen have also agreed to hold a high-level economic dialogue among cabinet members in Tokyo on 7 June, 2009.

The swine flu A (H1N1) issue also figured prominently in the discussion. Both Aso and Wen promised all-out efforts to contain the spread of the flu. China has already established a mechanism to prevent and contain the spread of swine flu, which is expected to enhance international information flow and cooperation to safeguard public health.

As Aso’s visit came amid heightened regional tensions after North Korea’s purported satellite launch over Japan on April 5, discussion on it constituted another important issue on the agenda. China and North Korea are communist allies and their bilateral relationship continues unaffected despite fierce international criticism following the satellite launch. On the other hand, Japan’s relationship with the North is not yet normalized, particularly because of the latter’s security threat to Japan with its nuclear program and the North’s past abductions of Japanese citizens. During Aso’s visit, he was keen to enlist Chinese help in persuading Pyongyang to return to the Six-Party Talks on its nuclear program, as the North has walked away from the negotiating table in the wake of UN criticism over its rocket launch in early April, 2009. Unfortunately, China continues to take a softer line on North Korea. In fact, in early April, just before North Korea’s rocket launch, Chinese President Hu Jintao rebuffed Aso’s request for China to back a new UN Security Council resolution to impose sanctions against Pyongyang.

Aso pledged to work together with China in expanding cooperation in energy saving and environmental sectors as well as climate change. Both Aso and Wen have agreed on a comprehensive cooperation plan between the two nations on environmental and energy conservation measures. The new plan includes steps to deal with yellow sand and acid rain blown by winds from China that have affected various parts of Japan in recent years. The proposed plan also includes ways to improve facilities at China’s coal-burning thermal power plants that belch out huge amount of carbon dioxide. While in China, Aso also took time out to visit a China-Japan environmental project in Beijing that has implemented a pilot program to cut greenhouse emissions using Japanese technology.

Another important aspect of Aso’s recent Beijing visit has been Chinese Premier’s emphasis that Japan honour its promise to handle historical issues appropriately as they are highly sensitive. He also called on governments and political figures on both sides to adhere to the principles outlined in the important bilateral political documents which have been signed between the two states so far. Wen expressed China’s willingness to cooperate with Japan to expand youth and non-governmental exchanges and to boost understanding between the peoples of both countries. On his part, Aso stated that Japan’s stance on historical issues has been fully reflected in the official statements issued by the Japanese Prime Ministers during 1995-2005 where the main spirit has been to face up to history and keep oriented to the future. Aso pledged that his government’s policy would remain unchanged as far as historical issues are concerned. With a view to boosting people-to-people exchanges between China and Japan, Tokyo has already decided to host 100 junior and senior high school students from the region devastated by the Sichuan earthquake in 2008. Tokyo will also allow Chinese citizens to travel to Japan outside of group tours. Regular charter flight services between Haneda and Beijing airports are also going to start from October 2009.

Despite the positive outcome of Aso’s visit, certain points of friction still remain. Among historical issues, the Yasukuni Shrine controversy is probably the most prominent source of concern. Just before his visit to China, Aso stirred a controversy by sending an offering to Yasukuni Shrine. While expressing its ‘serious concern and dissatisfaction’ over Aso’s offering, the Chinese authority warned of ‘a serious and negative influence to bilateral relations’. Although the Chinese side did not make any move to cancel Aso’s planned visit to Beijing one week later or did not push the issue further during his visit, similar moves by Japanese leadership in the future may prove quite detrimental to the advancement of Sino-Japanese relations.