Walter Hamilton. Japan and China: agreeing to disagree

Nov 9, 2014

In diplomacy, sometimes a nod is as good as a wink. You can argue later over the question of who nodded first (if at all). The leaders of Japan and China are maneuvering towards their first face-to-face meeting after two years of chilly and occasionally belligerent relations. To enable the meeting to happen officials on both sides have been engaged in a tortuous diplomacy of the nod/wink kind.

The Japanese have a word, nemawashi, which loosely translates as ‘spade work’. They are masters at the patient, protracted negotiations––and accompanying softening up process––necessary to bring off a business deal, public works project or diplomatic coup. Their obvious equals in this are the Chinese.

Two years ago, the centre-left government of Yoshihiko Noda, jammed in a wedge by right-wing agitators, took the fateful decision to nationalize several islands in the Senkaku group, close to Taiwan, which have been administered by Japan for most of the past 120 years. This, as far as China was concerned, changed the status quo in the two countries’ management of their territorial dispute over the islands.

The Communist Party gave the green light for widespread protests in China, which sometimes turned violent: Japanese business premises were attacked, trade flows declined sharply and Chinese tourists stopped visiting Japan. When Chinese military vessels and aircraft started aggressively intruding into the sea and airspace around the islands, and Beijing unilaterally declared an exclusion zone in the East China Sea, it seemed possible that a military conflict might be triggered.

The replacement of the Noda administration by the conservative LDP-led government of Shinzo Abe in December 2012 only sharpened the conflict. Abe adopted a hardline ‘no recognition’ policy towards China’s claim to the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands and deployed additional military resources to defend Japan’s interests.

Though the risk of an ‘accidental’ clash remained real, this writer never believed a military conflict was imminent, for several reasons. First, it was not in Japan’s interest to start one. Secondly, China knew that its naval power, at this stage, was not sufficient to be assured of victory. Thirdly, the Chinese economy is going through a delicate transition to a lower pattern of growth and would be vulnerable to any shocks flowing from a military clash with Japan. Finally, the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue is essentially about muscle flexing; the islands have little intrinsic value. In an exercise of muscle flexing, the idea is to display your biceps and triceps without actually lift the weights. This goes for both Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping.

Diplomacy, rather than war, always held out the best solution for both sides: hence the months of backroom meetings aimed at achieving a result that allows both to maintain face. The APEC leaders forum, which kicks off in Beijing tomorrow (Monday), is the obvious occasion for a first tête-a-tête between Abe and Xi. It’s not a guaranteed success, but it seems likely that it will mark the start of a new modus operandi for managing the territorial dispute.

The fact that the meeting will happen in China satisfies Beijing: ‘Japan came to us’. The formula to be adopted, according to reports, is that both sides will ‘agree to disagree’ over which has sovereignty over the islands. This would satisfy Tokyo by falling short of an open admission that China has a claim to the islands. The two leaders are also expected to endorse the work of officials, undertaken during the past year, to put in place a conflict-resolution protocol for de-escalating situations that could give rise to a military clash.

The presence of a great number of coast guard and military vessels from the two nations, not to mention their competing fishing fleets, in the crowded East China Sea has been causing alarm in the neighbourhood and beyond. If Japan and China can agree on a better way to manage the consequences of their dispute, even if they cannot resolve it fundamentally, much will have been achieved.

The other concession sought by China is that Abe should stop making visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a symbol of Japan’s wartime aggression, and do more to acknowledge the nation’s past mistakes.

On these issues, the diplomats will have been throwing out their most delicate nods/winks. But remember, the horse is blind. Abe almost certainly will not publically abandon his prerogative to visit Yasukuni––but having stayed away during the recent autumn visiting ‘season’, he may already have sufficiently signaled his intention to tread carefully. (Other members of his Cabinet, however, have continued to visit the shrine where 14 convicted Class ‘A’ war criminals are commemorated among the 2.5 million war dead whose spirits are enshrined there.)

Whether the two leaders can bring to their talks anything constructive on the vexed issue of historical accountability is very unlikely. The meeting, in fact, may prove little more than a handshake and a photo opportunity: the first step on a long and difficult road back to a saner future.

Walter Hamilton reported from Japan for the ABC for eleven years.





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