Kim Kyung-Hoon / REUTERS Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, November 2014. 

Room to Maneuver

The Prospects for Pragmatism in Japan's Regional Relations

On August 15, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe released a highly anticipated statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. The weeks prior to the statement had brought a barrage of handwringing about whether Abe would revise or gloss over statements of apology issued by previous Japanese governments and whether he would offer a personal, rather than an official, statement of Tokyo’s position. China and South Korea, in particular, were concerned that Abe’s allegedly revisionist view of regional history might lead to his repudiation of the traditional narrative of Japan's wartime guilt. In the view of Beijing and Seoul, Japan's willingness to apologize for its role in World War II would reflect Tokyo's commitment to improving regional ties, which have long been burdened by the weight of a contested history. Indeed, both of Japan’s neighbors believe that improved relations with Tokyo depend on a more conciliatory approach to wartime history on the part of the Abe administration.

Abe's statement met with mixed reviews in the region. On the one hand, the Japanese prime minister managed to satisfy some South Korean and Chinese concerns by including key phrases used in previous Japanese apologies—references, for example, to Japan's "aggression" and "colonial rule" and expressions of a "heartfelt apology" and "deep remorse" for the country's actions. That language was borrowed from a statement by former Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama, whose 1995 apology has remained a benchmark for official statements over the two decades since. And Abe gained official cabinet approval for his statement, which alleviated concerns in Beijing, in Seoul, and among the Japanese opposition that he would offer an unsanctioned take on regional history. On the other hand, Abe's statement met with some skepticism: both the Chinese and South Korean governments questioned Abe's decision to go no further in his remarks than his predecessors had, rather than issue a new apology. Beijing termed Abe’s speech “evasive”; South Korean President Park Geun-hye said that his remarks “left a lot to be desired.”

Both China and South Korea questioned Abe's decision to go no further in his apology than his predecessors had.

But this is only half of the story, because Chinese and South Korean criticisms almost always follow Japanese apologies. In this context, the reactions from Beijing and Seoul were actually quite measured. Both Chinese and South Korean leaders seem to have accepted Abe's statement as meeting their minimum expectations; Park even welcomed Abe’s affirmation of previous Japanese apologies as “unshakable.” Such reactions suggest that Beijing, Seoul, and Tokyo can proceed on the fragile course of repairing frayed regional relations.

People watch Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on a screen as he gives a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, in Tokyo, August 2015. 

SIGNS OF THAWING

Relations between China and Japan have slowly improved since November, when Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooaperation leaders’ summit, in Beijing. Those discussions, which were more symbolic than substantive, were followed in April with a more amicable encounter on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa Summit, in Jakarta. During that meeting, Abe stressed the need for China and Japan to return to a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”—a phrase borrowed from Abe's first tenure as prime minister, from 2006 to 2007, when relations between Beijing and Tokyo were more amicable than they are today. Even China’s state-run media commented on the meeting favorably; Xinhua, for example, called it a “sign of thawing” between the two rivals. These modest improvements in bilateral ties are premised mainly on Tokyo's reaffirmation of its historic apologies and its decision to acquiesce, at least in private, to long-standing Chinese demands that Abe and his top ministers not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, where many of Japan's wartime military leaders are memorialized. Tokyo’s fulfillment of these minimum expectations has opened the way for Japan and China to slowly advance their shared economic interests by, for example, continuing negotiations for a trilateral trade agreement with South Korea.

Beijing has deployed ever-larger vessels to the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and has built a naval base on Nanji Island, less than 200 miles away.

To be sure, Abe's statement will do nothing to derail these modest improvements. Yet it will also add little trust to a relationship that remains plagued by strategic ambiguities and misperceptions. In the East China Sea, for example, tensions between Beijing and Tokyo have continued to heighten over the Senkaku Islands (called the Diaoyu Islands in China), which are claimed by both states. Both China and Japan are ramping up their military capabilities in the seas surrounding the contested territory: Beijing has deployed ever-larger vessels to the islands and has built a naval base on Nanji Island, less than 200 miles away; Japan, meanwhile, is boosting its defense budget to improve the strength of the Japanese coast guard and its amphibious forces. These military commitments have been matched by verbal ones: in a defense white paper released in July, Tokyo accused China of unilaterally attempting to “change the status quo" in the East China Sea and warned that Chinese aerial and maritime activities around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands could “trigger contingencies,” military jargon for unexpected clashes. And although China and Japan have agreed to work toward a crisis management mechanism, such as an emergency hot line between Beijing and Tokyo, to avoid such confrontations, they have not yet taken concrete steps toward this end, which will be essential if regional peace is to be maintained.

Tokyo accused China of unilaterally attempting to “change the status quo" in the East China Sea and warned that Chinese aerial and maritime activities could “trigger contingencies,” or unexpected clashes.
KYODO / REUTERS A survey staff sent by the city government of Tokyo sails around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, September 2012. 

A RETURN TO PRAGMATISM?

Ties between Japan and South Korea, meanwhile, are at a nadir. Abe has been unable to secure an official bilateral meeting with Park since he took office in late 2012. Much of the reticence comes from Seoul: Park has called on Japan to adopt a “correct view on history” as a precondition to a meeting and has even said that an encounter with Abe would be “pointless” under current conditions. Abe’s recent reaffirmation of Japan's previous apologies for its sexual enslavement of South Korean "comfort women" during World War II should soothe some of Seoul’s concerns. But the main flash points in the relationship remain unresolved: Japan and South Korea have not yet reached a mutually acceptable resolution to the issue of the “comfort women” (by, for example, agreeing to further reparations for the surviving victims), nor have they established a diplomatic truce on the disputed Liancourt Rocks in the Sea of Japan.

It would be unrealistic to expect a breakthrough in Japanese-Korean relations in the coming months. More likely is that Seoul and Tokyo will attempt to pave the way for incremental improvements in the future. After two years of an ineffective, inconsistent approach toward bilateral ties, Park appears to be set on a more pragmatic policy, following two tracks—one focused on resolving historical issues through diplomatic channels, the other aimed at locating mutually beneficial areas of cooperation, particularly in the security realm.

South Korean President Park Geun-hye at a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of South Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule, August 2015. 

There has been recent movement on both of these fronts. Japanese and Korean diplomats, for instance, have been attempting to find a mutually acceptable resolution to the "comfort women" issue for months. And in April, Japan and Korea held a round of political-security talks, attended by both countries' defense and foreign ministers, the first meeting of its type in nearly five years. Those talks focused mainly on efforts, in partnership with the United States, to deter provocations from North Korea through greater military-to-military collaboration. The parties also discussed recent revisions to the U.S.-Japanese defense guidelines, and South Korea expressed its reservations regarding Japan’s proposed security reforms, which would effectively reinterpret the Japanese government's constitutional right to exercise self-defense. The security talks followed the completion of a trilateral agreement with the United States, signed in December, that allows Japan and South Korea to share intelligence, via U.S. intermediaries, on North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs. Despite their differences over history, then, shared concerns over Pyongyang provide a key opportunity for cooperation between Seoul and Tokyo.  

Observers should not expect a new era of cooperation in Northeast Asia.

Further movement in regional relations is forthcoming. China, Japan, and South Korea agreed in April to work toward a trilateral summit at the head-of-state level, ideally by the end of the year; should that occur, Japan will likely attempt to secure the first bilateral meeting between Abe and Park. In those meetings, as in the aftermath of Abe's recent statement, observers should not expect a new era of cooperation in Northeast Asia. Rather, they should hope for an opportunity for China, Japan, and South Korea to return to a much-needed pragmatism in regional relations. Japan has the space it needs to repair its fragile regional relationships through a careful combination of summitry and diplomacy. 

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