Wen Jiabao’s Softly Softly Approach to Japan

Premier Wen Jiabao’s just-completed “ice-thawing” visit to Japan has demonstrates a new sophistication in Chinese diplomacy: a readiness to focus on positive elements in bilateral ties while temporarily setting aside contentious issues, and a willingness to tolerate ambiguity if the clarification of disputes cannot be achieved in the near term.

This is not to say that a leap forward of significant proportions has been attained. Beijing and Tokyo have only begun the long journey towards the goal of a “mutually beneficial strategic” relationship. And both sides have hardly made a dent in resolving the major bone of contention in Sino-Japanese relations: Beijing’s perception that Tokyo is playing a key role in an emerging anti-China containment policy supposedly spearheaded by Washington; and Tokyo’s perception of the threat posed by the People’s Liberation Army – as well as Beijing’s determination to become Asia’s top dog through by various means, including marginalizing Japan’s influence in the region.

From Beijing’s point of view, there has actually been an exacerbation in Japan’s contribution to an “anti-China” encirclement policy. Heavyweight, more sophisticated American hardware, including aircraft carriers and brand-new F-22 fighters have been stationed at or near US bases in Japan. Tokyo also recently concluded a defense agreement with Canberra that seems to target China. And an “anti-China axis”, incorporating the U.S., Japan and India, is poised to flex its muscle.

While the official Chinese media has made much of Japan’s role as an “Asian agent” of U.S. “neo-imperialism”, Wen and his diplomats have steered clear of negative comments about the “anti-China” implications of Tokyo’s growing defense links with the U.S. and Australia ‑ at least since Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing last October. Indeed, Beijing has since mid-2006 closed down a number of “anti-Japan” websites, and Chinese NGOs have been prevented from either holding demonstrations outside the Japanese Embassy in Beijing or hiring boats to sail to the disputed Diaoyu Islands (known as the Senkakus in Japan) to protest against Japanese claims to the archipelago.

Beijing’s new-found readiness to work with what’s possible while temporarily setting aside differences is also evident in the treatment of the East China Sea question. The Wen-Abe agreement indicated both parties’ willingness to seek ways to jointly exploit gas under the East China Sea while for the time being leaving the issue of sovereignty ambiguous. Working groups representing the two countries are set to table proposals for joint exploitation by this fall. Beijing has displayed a considerable level of forbearance particularly given the fact that the topography of the area favors China.

The Chinese have already started work at the Chun Xiao Oilfield site, which is to the west of the mid-way line that divides the narrow strip of water. [The Chinese have never recognized the “midway demarcation theory” advocated by Tokyo; Beijing favors the continental shelf theory, which would result in more undersea territory falling under Chinese sovereignty].

Tokyo has protested that Chinese action at Chun Xiao would result in gas being sucked from the Japanese side; however, the Chinese have argued that even if this were to happen, it is due to sea-bed configuration over which Beijing has no control.

The other major issue bedeviling ties – visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by senior Japan officials – has also been at least temporarily set side thanks to the emerging theory of ambiguity. So far, Abe, whose views are in some respects more hawkish than those of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, has refused to make a commitment not to pay homage to Yasukuni. However, Beijing seems satisfied with behind-closed-doors assurances made by Abe’s aides that no such visits would take place during the latter’s tenure as head of government.

After Wen’s three-day visit, the Chinese leader seems satisfied with his tour. And Beijing media’s report of the trip has consistently been upbeat. However, the basis of Sino-Japanese rapprochement is thin, particularly in the area of mutual suspicions about military and geopolitical matters. Symbolic and public-relations gestures such as mutual visits by defense ministers can only go so far in convincing Tokyo that PLA modernization is not aimed at Japan – or in reassuring Beijing that Tokyo will not enhance military cooperation with the U.S., Australia and even India to “contain” China.

From a broader perspective, the elaborate and fairly sophisticated way that Beijing has gone about restoring ties with Japan to the levels before the Koizumi era seems to proof that the Hu Jintao-Wen Jiabao leadership is determined to be a responsible member of the international community. This squares with recent developments, such as China playing an active role in the North Korean issue and Beijing’s willingness to send more troops on United Nations-mandated peace-keeping missions.

It is also true, however, that Hu, who handles foreign policy, subscribes to Chairman Mao Zedong’s famous axiom about “walking on two legs” – meaning that it is justifiable to use both “hard” and “soft” tactics. There seems little doubt that while the Hu-Wen team seems more willing to embrace global norms in diplomacy, it is also committed to a policy of aggressive power projection. And more developments such as new-generation Chinese submarines making waves in sensitive spots around the world, or a repeat performance of last January’s downing of the weather satellite are to be expected in line with the nation’s fast-paced economic and military expansion.