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14:47 1 December 2014

OPINION: Japan depressed

By Hiroki Sugita
TOKYO, Dec. 1, Kyodo

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping finally met. Japan and China found a way to express differences over the Senkaku Islands and moved on. They agreed to build a crisis management mechanism to prevent the escalation of tension around the islands.

Although this was a good start, questions and concerns are shared by many Japanese, who believe that this meeting could lead to Japan having a reduced status in the dynamic power struggle in East Asia.

It is clear that Japan needs to mend ties with China, given the growing alarm as both appeared to be increasingly poised for military conflict. Competing sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands have fueled intense nationalistic emotions in both countries. The Chinese have dispatched their own maritime patrols to the islands to demonstrate their sovereignty, and Chinese planes have flown over territorial airspace. Japanese jets have scrambled in response. The Chinese Ministry of National Defense announced the establishment of a new Air Defense Identification Zone, or ADIZ, that overlaps with the Japanese ADIZ.

The relationship between the world's No. 2 and 3 economies has diminished. Reflecting the tension, Japan's direct investment in China decreased by 43 percent on year in the first nine months of this year. China has moved to form a China-centric economic zone, including free trade agreements with South Korea and Southeast Asian countries, mega natural gas pipeline agreements with Russia, and the establishment of an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank to provide Chinese monetary help to developing countries. These dynamic economic activities have left Japan isolated in the region.

Abe's meeting with Xi is thus intended to bring benefits to Japan. So why do we feel anxiety when we see Abe shaking hands with a grouchy Xi? I detect many fundamental problems underlying the handshake.

Xi describes his preferred formula for a "new type of great power relationship" with the United States as an effort to break a historical pattern of confrontation between status quo states and challenging powers. However, this new type of relationship has many implications for Japan.

First, Xi states that there is room in the Pacific for two great powers to coexist and cooperate. Simply put, we dislike seeing only China and the United States cooperating and handling issues, and ignoring the voices of Japan and other states in the region. We detest this Group of Two, or G-2, power game. At a November summit meeting in Beijing, Xi and U.S. President Barack Obama announced a landmark agreement on emission targets that overshadows the U.N.-sponsored global conference on climate change. This agreement illustrates very clearly that from now on, the key issues -- global or regional -- may be negotiated and solved by U.S.-China big power talks.

Second, the Chinese say that the great power relationship between China and the United States requires respect for each country's core interests. This statement implies that the United States should not intervene over issues concerning Taiwan, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, or the Senkaku Islands. China also contends that the United States should respect the Chinese political system, including its positions on human rights and one-party rule by the Communist Party. China says this principle of mutual respect also applies to Japan too. However, it is very difficult for the United States and Japan to respect China's core interests. We cannot give up international norms and fundamental values such as human rights and democracy that we have fostered and now enjoy.

Third, the Japanese suspect that Xi is establishing a Chinese sphere of influence. At the regional confidence-building summit in Shanghai in May, Xi called for a new Asian security framework in which security in Asia should be guaranteed by Asian countries, saying that external military alliances in the region have simply become destabilizing factors. Security experts in Asia speculate that Xi's speech is intended to squeeze U.S. influence out of Asia. Together with establishing the AIIB and the FTA covering Asia, China has achieved major progress in building up its sphere of influence. That makes Japan nervous.

More importantly, nobody knows where China will stop. We say that we welcome the peaceful ascent of China, but to what extent do we feel comfortable with a bigger China? It is difficult to delineate China's sphere of influence, and the Chinese will never be satisfied with the lines that the United States and Japan draw for China and will try to overcome them.

During the Abe-Xi meeting in Beijing, Japanese TV showed live video of hundreds of Chinese boats collecting coral illegally in Japan's territorial waters. Should we simply ascribe this kind of behavior of the Chinese to the mischief of a hegemonic power in its sphere of influence? Even if China were transformed into a democratic country, democratic mainland China could still be aggressive toward foreign countries to keep its economy going.

On this occasion, Abe made a step forward to resume talks with China. Japan and China announced a four-point statement three days before the summit, noting: "Both sides recognized that they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands." This statement means that Japan now admits that the sovereignty dispute has created tension and thus the necessity to solve the tension. That is a departure from Japan's past position; namely, "no dispute, no talks over the Senkaku Islands." Some experts in Japan speculate that now that we recognize differences, we will eventually have to move toward negotiation with China on sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands.

There is no other way forward than to admit the dispute and hold talks to solve it. However, there are many other challenging issues that Japan is now facing from China in addition to the Senkaku Islands; for example, relating to coral fishing, energy exploitation in the disputed East China Sea area, military expansion, and historical issues. We know that the pressure from China will never end -- we do not know how to handle China's demands. We may have to respond with piecemeal concessions to China in the long run, as we are seeing in the case of the Senkaku Islands. That prospect is making Japan depressed.

(Hiroki Sugita is managing feature writer of Kyodo News.)




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