Japan abandons bid to make China a key pillar of its foreign policy
China's recent aggressive behavior over disputed islands spurred Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan to turn his back on earlier efforts to rebalance ties with China and the United States.
Shaken by Chinaâ€™s ferocious behavior during a recent territorial dispute over a string of uninhabited islets, Japan has abandoned its earlier plans to make ties with Beijing a key pillar of a bold new foreign policy.
Instead, Tokyo is falling back for support on its traditional ally the United States, and seeking succor from other Asian nations who share fresh Japanese doubts about the regional implications of Chinaâ€™s rise.
The novel goal that former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama trumpeted as he led the Democratic Party of Japan to its first electoral victory just 15 months ago â€“ recalibrating Japanâ€™s relationships with Washington and Beijing â€“ is already a fading memory.
â€śRe-balancing is not on anyoneâ€™s agenda now,â€ť says one government official who asked not to be identified. â€śItâ€™s been tried and it failed. The crisis over the Senkaku islands [known to Chinese as the Diaoyu] has beefed up Japanâ€™s relations with America again.â€ť
Since Mr. Hatoyamaâ€™s resignation last June, his successor Naoto Kan â€śhas canceled everything that Hatoyama didâ€ť to modify Japanâ€™s two most important foreign relationships, says Masaru Kohno, professor of politics at Waseda University in Tokyo.
Reconsidering relations with China
Yet in the back of Japanese policymakersâ€™ minds lurks the suspicion that they will have to find a way, one day, of improving relations with their biggest trade partner. â€śTense relations between Japan and China have negative consequences for the whole of East Asia,â€ť says one Foreign Ministry official. â€śAnd we cannot just move out of the region.â€ť
A lot of Japanese citizens donâ€™t find their region very comfortable, however. In a poll published last week by the daily Yomiuri newspaper, 87 percent of respondents said they did not trust China, and almost as many saw Beijing as posing the same military threat as North Korea.
â€śJapan and China will start talking to each other again at some point,â€ť as they have after previous diplomatic spats, predicts Professor Kohno. â€śBut what is different about this crisis is that it has led people to think that maybe we have to reconsider relations with China, even if it means sacrificing trade.
â€śA significant number of Japanese are willing to sacrifice some economic well-being for the sake of a more principled position with regard to China,â€ť Kohno adds. â€śAnti-Chinese feeling is growing more entrenched among Japanâ€™s political class and ordinary people.â€ť
Such feelings were reinforced by Chinaâ€™s detention of four Japanese businessmen as Beijing sought the release of a Chinese fishing captain held by the Japanese prosecutor for allegedly ramming a Coast Guard patrol vessel. Japanese importers complain that China is still holding up exports of rare earths needed by Japanese high-technology manufacturers, two months after the crisis.
â€śWe all realizeâ€¦Chinaâ€™s true nature,â€ť says the Foreign Ministry official. â€śMaybe people and politicians have realized the Chinese essence, thanks to this incident.â€ť
Japanese anger at Chinaâ€™s behavior is further fueled by resentment at the way their giant neighbor has overtaken them as the worldâ€™s second-largest economy, says Tsuyoshi Yamaguchi, deputy head of the ruling DPJâ€™s policy research board.
â€śThe impact of the Senkaku incident will last because of people's frustrations about structural problems,â€ť Mr. Yamaguchi suggests. â€śIt will take time for the Japanese to get used to accepting the reality that China is No. 2 now, not us.â€ť
What's to be done?
At the same time, points out Taro Kono, a senior member of the opposition Liberal Democratic Party, â€śwe cannot simply terminate the relationship with China; there is much too much Japanese investment there. The government has to explain to citizens what needs to be done.â€ť
Japanese leaders have been seeking formal talks with their Chinese counterparts for weeks, so far without success. Chinese President Hu Jintao consented to meet Mr. Kan last weekend at the APEC summit in Yokohama for a brief informal conversation, but Chinese officials stressed that this did not mark a return to diplomatic normalcy.
Facing the prospect that China may play rough again in future disputes, says the Foreign Ministry official, â€śJapan canâ€™t face China alone. We have to step up cooperation with our main ally and with likeminded countries in the region.â€ť
Among the signs of such a policy, foreign diplomats say, are the recent sale of two Japanese nuclear power plants to Vietnam, and Japanese observers attending recent US-South Korean naval exercises for the first time.
â€śWe are deepening our dialog in a quiet wayâ€ť with Southeast Asian nations, says the government official, building on common concerns about Chinaâ€™s territorial ambitions. Like Japan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines have territorial disputes with Beijing over small islands that may control significant energy reserves.