01.08.2014 Author: Vladimir Terehov

Restoring Sino-Japanese Contacts and Russian Interests

87683245hfg12357-550x295The development of the political situation in the Asia-Pacific region is heavily influenced by the system of relations in the strategic quadrilateral “US-China-Japan-India” as a whole, as well as those in each of its “sides” and “diagonals”. Another two or three years ago it seemed that the main source of the deteriorating situation in the region should be sought in the “US-China” tandem. However, with the new trends in American foreign policy, which marked the beginning of Barack Obama’s second term, the “China-Japan” side of the quadrilateral has drawn ever increasing scrutiny.

The issues most often cited as the main cause of tension in Sino-Japanese relations is the dispute over the possession of the five Senkaku / Diaoyu Islands located in the East China Sea. In mid-2012, three of them were “purchased” by the Japanese government from a certain private owner, which caused an outcry in China, which actually terminated its official contacts with Japan as a result.

However, the dispute over the uninhabited territory with a total area of seven square kilometers is probably one of the symptoms of the poor general condition of bilateral relations. The main problem is that the objective process of either member of the “China-Japan” pair entering the group of leading global players would be perceived by the other as a threat to its own national interests and security.

These mutual concerns are mainly related to the complicated history of relations between China and Japan. For this reason, China has sorely perceived the visit by the current Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the Yasukuni Shrine, which commemorated the Japanese soldiers killed in the wars of the past 150 years. This very shrine also commemorates leaders of Japan during World War II who were executed by sentence of the Tokyo Tribunal.

It would seem that in these conditions it is especially necessary to preserve official bilateral contacts, at least to prevent dangerous “misunderstandings” in the course of almost constant mutual military demonstrations near the disputed islands. However, such contact has not been maintained for almost two years.

In early May of this year China was visited by a group of Japanese parliamentarians led by a veteran of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, Takeshi Noda. The delegation, which included two former ministers, was received by Yu Changsheng, the fourth-highest official in the hierarchy of the CPC leadership. The very fact that the first talks by high-level participants after such a long break in any contacts finally occurred was seen by both sides as an important indicator of the desire to regain control over the nature of the development of Japanese-Chinese relations.

However, even after these negotiations, the first in two years, the intrigue associated with the upcoming APEC summit to be held in November this year in Beijing remains. Since S. Abe will participate in the most authoritative regional forum, will his inevitable contact with Xi Jinping be limited to polite nods and small talk about the “weather”, as was the case for the last two years at other international forums?

Or will it be used for serious negotiations, as with all other leaders “in the fields” of such events? All the more so since these, given the current status of bilateral talks, are likely to have much greater significance than the final forum statements, which are primarily of a declarative nature. To obtain answers to these questions, “secret” talks were held on June 24 in Beijing between the Foreign Ministry officials of both countries.

Almost certainly, the Chinese leader will not take advantage of this opportunity if on August 15 (the day after the announcement of the Emperor of Japan’s surrender in World War II, made on August 14, 1945) Abe once again visits the Yasukuni Shrine to commemorate fallen Japanese soldiers.

However, with a high degree of certainty, we can expect that this time Abe will not take such a step. The fact that the parties are apparently prepared to take this opportunity to finally probe each other’s positions at the highest level is evidenced by the first meeting in two years by their current Ministers, held in Beijing on June 27 of this year.

How does Russia factor into these Japanese-Chinese games? Directly, and for several reasons. Primarily because Japan and China are two of the leading regional powers and are the immediate neighbors of the Russian Federation. Also, in the back of Russia’s mind is the fact that it may be forced to make a grim choice between them in the event that the current tense Sino-Japanese relations devolve into open conflict.

The frequent narrow-minded opinions on the advantages of this scenario to Russia are dangerous delusions. Russia will not only not be able to “warm its hands” on a fire of this magnitude, but will also very likely be fully engulfed in the flames together with the immediate “instigators.” Therefore, Russia should welcome the resumption of official contacts between Japan and China, and hope that they will be further developed, including during the upcoming APEC summit.

Secondly, at the end of last year, Russian leadership experienced a marked shift of Russian interests in the Russian part of the APR. However, a serious obstacle impeding the concentration of efforts to address the long-overdue key goals of the country appeared in the unexpected worsening of the situation in the neighboring territories, which only 23 years ago were part of the same state.

The latter, along with its population of 40 million, became, according to “international law”, the possession of the clinical “Ukrainizators”. By all appearances, taking action (reacting, primarily in Crimea) was forced by unavoidable circumstances.

However it was before, now it is what it is. The theme of “legal purity”, the optimal time and the chosen strategy for solving the Crimean problem, has already taken on an academic character. However, this was all after the casual redrawing of the previous “internationally recognized” the political and geographical map.

There can be no doubt that it was impossible to leave such a strategically important piece of territory inhabited by the Russian people in the hands of its crazed, intractable “owners”. As for fans of alternative history and dreaming up strategies, they now have some suitable ammunition.

For all the world’s leading players, which undoubtedly include China and Japan (as well as the U.S., Russia, India, and Germany), the APR is a giant, untilled field for all sorts of joint activities. These activities should not interfere with the Ukrainian abscess, which so unpleasantly appeared on the body of global politics.

Vladimir Terekhov, leading research fellow at the Center for Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the Russian Institute of Strategic Research, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

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