TCS Daily


Beyond the Shrine

By Richard Weitz - October 11, 2006 12:00 AM

The decision of Shinzo Abe to visit Beijing on his first foreign trip as Japan's new Prime Minister has led many observers to hope that Abe can achieve a breakthrough in Sino-Japanese relations. The annual visits since 2001 of former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to the Yasukuni war shrine have generated widespread protests in China and served as a pretext for the Chinese government to freeze relations. The shrine honors the 2.5 million Japanese troops who died in Japan's modern wars, including 14 Class A convicted war criminals from World War II. Critics in Japan and elsewhere see the memorial as a symbol of Japanese militarism. Citing the continuing visits, China's senior leaders had refused to meet with Koizumi outside of multilateral gatherings.

Current hopes for a rapid or sustained improvement in Sino-Japanese relations are probably misplaced. The mutual recriminations over Koizumi's shrine visits are a symptom rather than a cause of bilateral frictions. Several developments during the past decade have disrupted the previous stable pattern of Sino-Japanese relations. In particular, the demise of the Soviet threat and improvements in Russian-Chinese relations led China to reassess its earlier support for the Japanese-American defense alliance. Previously, Beijing tolerated the alliance because it helped contain Soviet power in the Pacific while simultaneously channeling Japanese military activities within acceptable boundaries. Since the mid-1990s, however, Chinese officials have increasingly feared that the two countries view China as the new target for their joint defense endeavors.

At the same time that the Cold War's end led Beijing to change its views of the U.S.-Japanese alliance, it also allowed the Japanese government to assume a more prominent role in international security affairs. During the past decade, the Japanese Self-Defense Forces (SDF) have deployed on a variety of foreign peace operations, including sending unarmed SDF personnel to Iraq. Growing Japanese nationalism has also prompted Japanese leaders to resist foreign pressures over the shrine issue, contributed to a growth of "apology fatigue" among the growing number of Japanese born after World War II, and increased support for enhancing Japan's capacity to respond like other "normal" medium-range powers to external security threats.

Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party has been pushing to modify the country's traditional interpretation of Japan's post-war constitution—especially Article 9's perceived restrictions on collective defense activities—to allow the Japanese Self-Defense Forces to play a greater role in international security. Amending the constitution would require a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the Diet, as well as an affirmative majority in a subsequent national referendum. Although this process could take a decade, Japan's external security role will likely continue to expand on a less formal basis given the lack of significant domestic opposition. Alarm over North Korea's reckless behavior motivated many of the initial innovations in Japan's regional security policies, but more recent differences with China have substantially lessened traditional popular concerns about expanding the SDF's roles and capabilities. For instance, a December 2005 public opinion poll conducted by the Nikkei Shimbun found that 69% of the respondents believed people "cannot trust" China compared with only 14% who said they could.

This change in Japanese public sentiment mainly stems from anxieties regarding China's growing economic and military power. Although the Japanese continue to see China as replete with tremendous commercial opportunities, recent Chinese actions have alarmed Japan's leaders and public. During the March 1996 crisis over Taiwan, China launched missiles in the island's vicinity, threatening regional maritime commerce. Some of these missiles landed within 100 kilometers of Okinawa. A few months later, the sovereignty dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands arose anew. Since the late 1990s, Chinese ships have conducted unauthorized "research" within waters claimed by Japan, exacerbating their bilateral dispute over exploratory drilling rights in the undersea natural gas fields of the East China Sea. In November 2004, the Japanese detected a Chinese nuclear submarine in their territorial waters. The Japan Defense Agency's Defense of Japan 2006 identified China's military modernization as potentially threatening and, like the U.S. and other governments, called on Beijing to make its defense programs more transparent. In December 2005, both Foreign Minister Taro Aso and Seiji Maehara, leader of the opposition Democratic Party of Japan, described China as a military threat to Japan.

Chinese policy makers probably do not consider Japan's SDF as an immediate threat. Nevertheless, they fear that U.S. pressure and Japan's extensive ties with Taiwan could result in joint Japanese-American intervention on Taipei's behalf in the event of a future Taiwan Straits crisis. To Beijing's annoyance, the Japanese and American foreign and defense ministers participating in the February 2005 Security Consultative Committee (SCC) session publicly identified for the first time the "peaceful resolution of issues concerning the Taiwan Strait" as a "common strategic objective" in the Asia Pacific region. When China's 2002 Defense White Paper expressed unease over joint U.S.-Japanese research on ballistic missile defense, the unstated concern was that the two countries could share BMD technologies with Taiwan. Such trilateral collaboration would negate Beijing's strategy of deterring the island's independence aspirations by threatening missile strikes in response to increased assertions of Taiwanese autonomy. Chinese sensitivities regarding Japan's ties with Taiwan became evident in February 2006, when a statement by the Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Aso about how Taiwan's educational system benefited from Japan's colonial rule elicited sharp Chinese protests. Over the long term, Chinese strategists worry that, with U.S. pressure and assistance, the Japanese could exploit their technological and industrial potential to become a major military power, perhaps even by activating the country's latent nuclear weapons capacity.

The bilateral relationship between Japan and China is primed for problems. If the Yasukuni visits stopped tomorrow, other sources of tension between Japan and China, currently overshadowed by the shrine issue, would assume greater prominence. China does not want Japan to have a seat on the UN Security Council, contests the country's maritime economic claims, and disapproves of Japan's growing security cooperation with the United States, particularly their joint development of ballistic missile defenses and their possible coordinated response to another crisis over Taiwan. East Asia has never experienced a situation in which both Japan and China were powerful and assertive states. Prior to Japan's Meiji Restoration in 1868, China was the dominant regional power. For the next hundred years, Japan enjoyed relative superiority, interrupted only during a short period after World War II when both countries were recovering from their wartime losses. As a result of Japan's decade-long economic stagnation and China's transition to a remarkably successful form of state capitalism, East Asia now must make room for two roughly equivalent economic powers, both with expanding security concerns and military capabilities.

Richard Weitz is a Senior Fellow at the Hudson Institute.

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16 Comments

Commie pretext.
Communists lie about their real reasons for taking all sorts of actions. Not the least of these is staging mass-protests. Take the recent protests in China over a Japanese textbook which supposedly whitewashed Japanese war crimes. The Chinese government organized massive street protests against Japan, and claimed it was a spontaneous uprising. Their real purpose was to hurt the Japanese in disputes over oil deposits in the South China Sea and a pipeline in Siberia. The Chinese similarly instigate riots as an excuse for denying contract bids, like a recent bid to build a high-speed rail system in Beijing that was submitted by a Japanese firm.

We know what the Commies do when they see a protest they didn't approve... How long do you think it took to get that protestor scraped out of the tank treads in Tiennamen Square?

The fact that this is an orchestrated campaign is also suggested by the actions of a major government-run trade association that suggested that people remove all "enemy" goods from their stores. Similarly, Google and other websites have agreed to unprecedented censorship of the internet in China, but access to all sorts of Japan-hating websites is entirely free.

This shrine is simply a symbol that the CHinese are using to stir up trouble. They do not really care, they just want a better PR position vis-a-vis the Japanese.

the beyond
Of course the chinamen will find many more pretexts to complain about the japs, not just shrines and books. They're historical enemies and current rivals and think in machiavellian ways that most naive westerners can't even imagine. Now if the Americans really pulled out of south Korea, then you would see some action.

China's need to oppose Japan
Following the disaster of the Cultural Revolution and the death of Mao in 1976 and the corresponding success of the free market reforms of Deng Xiaoping the Communist party was left with a serious legitmacy problem. How could the party of socialism and communism and the inheritors of the people's revolution maintain their power if their policies were so ovbiously to the anthesis of their base?

The answer, found in the post Tianamen square mood of the 1990's was nationalism. Nationalsim has allways been a means by which governments can tie their peoples loyalties to themselves. Therefore, the communist government took up the mantle of being the protectors of China, while at the same time providing economic growth which could satiate much of the new middle class.

However this reliance on nationalism leads to the Communist government being forced to take ultranationalist stances both foreignly and domesticly. Hence China must react strongly and publicly to any attempt by Japan to circumvent their own regional power, lest they look weak to the Chinese people. Chinese reaction to shrine visits by Japanese officals is also predicated on this basis of power.

With the Communist governments claim to power vested in nationalism, the ability of Japan and China to co-exist as regional powers becomes un-likely. With the end result being some re-balancing of power in the region.

Chinese propaganda
I was in China last year, up and down the East coast. I was asked about any anti-American propaganda I found there.

I didn't see any anti-American propaganda coming directly from the Chicoms. Then again they don't have to, since every city (even the small out of the way cities) carried CNN International. While papers like China Daily will be critical of US policy, it was milder than what you'd see in the NY Times.

The Chicoms saved their propaganda for the Japanese. It was common to see VERY cheezy WW2 movies that look like they were made in the 60's.

China's Game
I believe that it is in China's best interest more so than Japan's that Sino-Japanese relations prosper. While there is no doubt that Japan's prominence and strength will continue to grow and create a region where China and Japan are equally "powerful and assertive states", China will need to ensure its own security by building an economically and politically viable relationship with Japan. The autonomy of Taiwan will likely reemerge as an important issue in China’s future. Because of the US’s commitment to Taiwan, and the ever strengthening military cooperation between Japan and the US, China will need to create a strong, viable relationship with Japan, a relationship that will become so crucial to Japan’s economic and political development that Japan could ill afford to deteriorate or lose such a strong relationship. This will make it both economically and politically consequential to assist the US and Taiwan in any military engagement against China, giving China much more favorable strategic odds if such military engagement were to occur.

Nationalism or Economics?
Weitz’s perspicacious piece allows the reader to escape the rhetoric and polemics between China and Japan as exemplified by Japan’s war shrine visits and China’s persistently exaggerated, and some might claim, staged response.


Weitz is able to get to the crux of the problem – the long-standing competition of these two historic nations for regional dominance. Recent developments have brought these two parties into greater conflict. First, Japan’s gradual reassertion of its military role in the region through the Japanese-American defense alliance and secondly, China’s rapid economic and military expansion.


Despite a growing clash of interest between China and Japan, conflict is by no means inevitable. However, much of this will hinge on the internal struggle between nationalism and economics. Will the desire for economic growth and stability be able to prevent warfare or will a growing sense of nationalism in China and a reemergence of Japan’s fascist tendencies overtake pragmatic concerns?

Everyone's game
While I don't believe that conflict is likely, it is doubtful that the tensions will be resolved any time soon. In response to the previouse comment, Japan has just as much at stake as China. In 2005, China became Japan's largest trading partner and - to my knowledge - remains so. For this, and the other reasons already noted by others, I think we'll continue to see the two nations "circling each other and growling," but not much beyond that.

No Subject
I agree. Japan does not need a relationship with China the same way China needs one with Japan because they have the U.S. to fall back on. Like you said, China has no such option and needs to make itself indispensable to Japan in order for no conflict to arise.

Greater reconciliation for greater dialogue
The war shrine visits by Junichiro Koizumi always served as a source of resentment and anger for the Chinese. However, as is stated in this article Japan's new Prime Minister offers the potential to heal past wounds and improve relations between Japan and China. While there will always be sources of contention, especially China's lack of transparency and extensive and growing ballistic missile program, which has been pursued largely in place of and in response to US and to a lesser extent, Japanese naval power.

Nevertheless there is hope for greater cooperation between China and Japan. Certainly their economic ties are strong, but even more importantly there is a potential for diplomatic relations to improve. Unified opposition to North Korea's apparant testing of a nuclear bomb presents a unique opportunity for both countries to coordinate their foreign policy through condemnation and even sanctions. While this situation might not present an opportunity for "rapid or sustained improvement in Sino-Japanese relations" it might facilitate dialogue on this issue, stalled since the halting of Six-Nation talks last year. The more these two countries engage in diplomatic dialogue the greater the opportunity for reconciliation.

Sino-Japanese relations in Jeopardy
A very insightful piece. As Weitz concludes, it is not really trips to a shrine or school books. It is about who will run things in East Asia and both countries are playing for keeps. America could be using Japan as a pawn but I think that that is misleading and a mischaracterization of the relationship. However, it is unlikely to develop into armed conflict. Unless, of course, Taiwan moves towards formally declaring independence. In such a case, mutual economics interests will be thrown to the wayside: As much as America and Japan enjoy the boon of trade with China, defending Taiwan from a mainland invasion will no doubt take precendence and priority. As for China, losing Taiwan is worse than wrecking over a quarter of a century of economic reform.

A realistic perspective
Dr. Weitz's take on the Sino-Japanese relationship is spot on. I believe Prime Minister Abe's visit to Beijing and the recent joint statement by Japan-China over the North Korean nuclear test is exagerrated. While it may be the start of a new bilateral relations that detriorated over Prime Minister Koizumi's visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, I don't think the recent developments between the two countries mean there will be a complete solution to the tension between the two nations. From a pessimistic perspective, it is possible that tensions will only rise. As a result of the North Korean nuclear test, Japan may consider nuclear weapons. It would behoove the United States, who has troops embedded in South Korea and Okinawa, to monitor the situation closely and try to prevent any escalation in the region.

alliances
Mr. Richard Weitz’s main argument seems to be that we should not expect any breakthrough in the near future in Sino-Japanese relations. Instead, today represents an unprecedented moment in East Asia: for the first time, there are two roughly equivalent economic powers, both with increasing security concerns and military capabilities.

Indeed, a conflict between Japan, a traditional ally of the United States, and China, an increasingly sought ally of the United States, seems to put us in a particularly akward position. As it seems unreasonable to have to decide between the countries as allies, the real question is how can we make both Japan and China our ally, and consequently entice these states to be friendlier towards each other? Perhaps recent improvements in Russian-Chinese relations offer an answer. If we are to maintain a healthy relationship with Russia, then China might be more favorable to the US, and therefore Japan. With some outgoing effort by the United States, these two separate alliances might eventually become a sociable quartet of powerful states. Of course, a more immediate solution is if we we were to lessen our security cooperation with Japan, particularly joint research on ballistic missile defense. In this event, it seems reasonable to expect China to feel less threatened and therefore more willing to cooperate with the United States on future policy issues. Whatever the case, Weitz has brought to our attention an important phenomenon occurring in East Asia. While most attention is placed on North Korea and nuclear weapons programs, we must not forget the equally or perhaps more important regional dynamics of Sino-Japanese relations and their major implications for US interests.

Emotion or politics
As this article aptly points out, the issues regarding Sino-Japanese relations have deeper roots and problems than the Yasukuni shrine. Be it the Chinese or the Japanese, the economic and power based issues are being pushed under the carpet in favor of a more exploitable issue, the Yasukuni war shrine and these countries' respective experiences in World War II.

Realism does not equal pessimism
While the article makes it very clear why the Sino-Japanese relations could remain at the current low level, it has little to say about possible causes of improvement (this may happen because a policy report is generally assumed to be written on a starker note). However, balance implies equal weight given to all factors and I believe there may be some causes for guarded hope.

The most obvious one is North Korea. China's regional influence has been badly damaged as a result of the recent nuclear test. The Beijing government has to show now that it can keep its backyard quiet and that implies assuaging Japan's worries too. The test can predictably generate two more problems for China, a regional nuclear race and an increased U.S.-Japanese cooperation on ballistic missile defense. Both issues can be played down by skillful diplomacy and further cooperation between Beijing and Tokyo.

Although I agree with the author that a sustained, rapid improvement is unlikely, there is no reason for the time being to rule out a step-by-step rapprochement based on a limited agenda with the thorniest issues being wilfully left out. On a final note, I should say that, while the Chinese government does make heavy use of the nationalist sentiment, the shrine visits are surely meant to pander to the same sort of passions.

Why do liberals believe that everyone who fought for the enemy, must be demonized?
Probably part of the liberal philosphy that individuals don't matter. All that matters is the group that the liberal assigns you to.

Sino-Japanese(-US) Relations
Chinese resoluteness in asserting that the Japanese security cooperation with the US is contrary to the PRC's policy is certainly well-founded, but not necessarily well-intentioned.

It is well-founded because, as Dr. Weitz points out, there is no room for another military power in the Sea of Japan. Unlike the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95 (whereby an unsurprisingly unorganized and exclusively Chinese fleet fired rounds that pierced the Japanese gunships, but did not inflict much extensive damage throughout the conflict), the Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) has become the calculating and meticulous complement to its 1894 predecessor, and is not interested in sharing its military prowess with another East Asian state (especially one with which it has such a colored and war-tainted history).

However, China's motives are not necessarily well-intentioned because China tends to tends to rely on Japan's past, the Yasukuni Shrine remaining the best example, to influence its security policy and keep Japan in check. China's military operations in such close proximity to the Japanese island are reason enough to question its motives.

Of course, in a epithet Michael Green has so eloquently coined (and also entitled his latest book after), I would argue that "Japan's reluctant realism" is something to reflect upon. One might mention the gradual buildup of nationalist sentiment in Japan, which continues to uphold the consideration of righteousness of the Yasukuni Shrine, but there's one glaring fact that remains (exemplified in that Japan doesn't want a security responsibility in the Pacific any more than China wants it to gain one): Japan has been opposed to arming itself in the wake of a (reportedly) successful N. Korean nuclear weapons testing. Japan, even under the auspices of a modern state threatened by a nuclear power, knows (and certainly hopes) that its relationship with the US is the closest it will ever come to maintaining a military guardship over other states in the region.

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