Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 00:21 | SYDNEY
Friday 17 Aug 2018 | 00:21 | SYDNEY

Japan-China relations under Naoto Kan

15 July 2010 12:45

Yoichiro Sato is a Professor of International Strategic Studies, Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University.

Under the new leadership of Prime Minister Naoto Kan, the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) and its ruling coalition ended up twelve seats shy of a controlling majority in the upper house of parliament in last weekend's election. The DPJ's need to take one or two new coalition partners will likely pull the party's China policy into a more conservative direction.

The DPJ, upon taking control of the government from the Liberal Democratic Party in fall 2009, drastically revised the country's China policy. It quietly dropped criticism of China's human rights practices, reversing the policy under Prime Ministers Abe and Aso. And Prime Minister Hatoyama assigned Japan the role of 'facilitating relations' between the US and China.

The drift of Japan's relations with the US during the past year was directly attributable to the DPJ's inexperience in handling foreign policy and Hatoyama's naïve view about closer political cooperation with East Asian countries. While China was unsure of what Hatoyama's East Asia policy meant, the weakening of US-Japan solidarity without a revival of Japan's nationalism was a gift from heaven for China.

Now that Kan has vowed to repair damaged relations with the US, Japan's foreign policy is slowly returning to its pre-Hatoyama normalcy. Japan-China relations will remain stable under the new government, but the continuing deadlocks on key bilateral issues will likely consume the goodwill toward Beijing among DPJ members.

China's failure to fully embrace Hatoyama's half-cooked 'East Asian Community' concept at the East Asian Summit meeting in October 2009 was perhaps the beginning of Japan's return to normalcy. Hatoyama's proposal, which contradicted Australia's 'Asia Pacific Community' proposal, embarrassed then Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. Hatoyama's proposal also left the US irritated, for it came just after Washington spent considerable political capital signing the ASEAN Treaty of Amity and Cooperation, a condition for it to be invited to the East Asian Summit.

In the following months, Japan insisted on talking to China about unsettled issues. Japan demanded stronger Chinese commitment to negotiating joint development of the Shungyo (Chunxiao) gas field in the East China Sea, threatening China with lodging a case to the International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea. And Japan demanded acceleration of the stalled negotiation on concluding a trilateral investment agreement among Japan, China and South Korea, in order to check against continuing Chinese use of mercantilist policy against Japanese investment.

Both requests reflected Japan's frustration with China's tactic of enjoying the status quo while appearing to negotiate.

Nor did the arrival of the DPJ Government in Japan improve the already cold military relations between Japan and China. Japan's decision to shadow the Chinese naval exercise through the Okinawan island chain into the Western Pacific in April 2009 was met with the unusually close approach of a Chinese military helicopter to Japanese destroyers. Foreign Minister Katsuya Okada lodged a formal protest to the Chinese ambassador in Tokyo.

China's patronage of North Korea has also frustrated Japan. The sinking of a South Korean corvette by a North Korean torpedo attack in March invited coordinated protests from Japan, the US and South Korea. However, China's efforts blocked the possibility of an UN Security Council resolution against North Korea, and the compromised Presidential Statement not only failed to explicitly name North Korea as the culprit, but also noted North Korea's denial.

Kan's new government has inherited all of these pending issues with China. Chinese leaders hold favorable views of Kan, who has spent time in various parliamentary friendship events with his Chinese counterparts. As a prime minister, Kan now has to deliver acceptable compromises from China on the pending diplomatic issues.

The DPJ's most likely coalition partners will be one or two of the centrist parties which split from the LDP during the past year, and on China policy, the centre of gravity within the upcoming ruling coalition will be with the centrists and conservatives. In the likely event that China continues to stall ongoing negotiations on various issues, Kan will face criticism from the conservatives inside and outside his party as well as from his centrist coalition partners. 

Photo by Flickr user jimmyharris, used under a Creative Commons license.