Beijing steps up Koizumi bashingTOKYO - With no sign of a thaw in chilly relations with Tokyo, Beijing appears to be isolating Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi in a bid to discredit him and his policies.
This shift in China's Japan strategy has become increasingly evident in recent weeks and is expected to translate further into action leading up to Koizumi's exit from the political stage in September. He is to step down as president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and thereby as prime minister.
The message Beijing apparently wants to get across is: without Koizumi, Sino-Japanese relations would have flourished, and whoever succeeds him in the autumn has a good chance of turning liabilities left behind by Koizumi into assets by learning from his negative example and refraining from visiting the war-related Yasukuni Shrine.
Koizumi has visited the Shinto shrine in Tokyo - where 14 Class A World War II criminals, including former prime minister General Hideki Tojo, are enshrined along with some 2.4 million other war dead - once every year since taking office in 2001. China and South Korea have harshly condemned the shrine visits by Koizumi as glorifying Japan's past militarism.
Top Chinese leaders for nearly a year have shunned Koizumi and refused to meet him, even during international conferences held in third countries. Japanese Foreign Minister Machimura Nobutaka's planned visit to Beijing in late October was also canceled because of Koizumi's Yasukuni visit days earlier.
It is believed that at a secret meeting in Beijing in late December, attended by Chinese Ambassador to Tokyo Wang Yi, China adopted its new Japan strategy of not only bashing but isolating Koizumi by excluding him from exchanges it launched with various Japanese sectors, including political and business. The goal is to persuade his successor not to visit Yasukuni Shrine.
The Chinese leadership is closely watching who will succeed Koizumi and what policy the successor will take toward China. Among the four leading potential candidates to take over from Koizumi, Chief Cabinet Secretary Shinzo Abe and Foreign Minister Taro Aso are conservative hawks with anti-China views and supporters of Koizumi's visits to the shrine, while former chief cabinet secretary Yasuo Fukuda and Finance Minister Sadakazu Tanigaki are moderates with pro-China views and critics of Koizumi's Yasukuni visits.
China recently invited one of Japan's pro-China ministers to Beijing and other politicians with similar views are expected to visit soon for talks with top Chinese leaders. China also recently had a visit by a senior Japanese politician with close ties not only to Koizumi but to Abe, apparently in the hope of preparing for the post-Koizumi era, although he was not received as enthusiastically.
Several major Japanese associations promoting Sino-Japanese friendship are to send a high-powered delegation to Beijing late this month. The delegation will include former prime minister Ryutaro Hashimoto, former home affairs minister Takeshi Noda and former foreign minister Masahiko Komura. The three are critical of Koizumi's China policy. They are expected to receive a red-carpet welcome in Beijing, including an audience with President Hu Jintao. Noda also made a Beijing trip in early February. Former LDP secretary general Makoto Koga, an arch-foe of Koizumi within the LDP, also plans to visit Beijing in early May.
Beijing is widely believed to have given up hope of mending ties with the Koizumi government. Chinese officials apparently view Abe, by far the most popular with the Japanese public of the four possible successors, as most likely to take over. In fact, Vice Foreign Minister Dai Bingguo made a point of meeting Abe during his recent visit to Japan. He was keen to learn whether Abe would visit the Yasukuni Shrine if he becomes prime minister.
China's new Japan strategy became clear when Japanese Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Toshihiro Nikai visited Beijing late last month. Nikai, the highest-level Japanese official to visit China since Koizumi upset Beijing with his last Yasukuni visit, met with Chinese leaders including Premier Wen Jiabao, Commerce Minister Bo Xilai and State Councilor Tang Jiaxuan. Hidenao Nakagawa, chairman of the LDP's policy research council, also visited Beijing at the same time as Nikai for a first meeting of an exchange forum between the countries' ruling parties. The forum was established in 2004, but had never been held because of deteriorating Sino-Japanese ties.
Chinese leaders apparently treated Nakagawa, a close aid to Koizumi, differently from Nikai, a pro-China politician; they visited at the same time. Nakagawa had hoped to meet with Wu Bangguo, chairman of the National People's Congress, China's national legislature, and Vice President Zeng Qinghong, but the meetings did not materialize. Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing also canceled a scheduled lunch meeting with Nakagawa.
During Nikai's stay in Beijing, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman said, "Correctly handling history is the important political foundation of Sino-Japanese relations." In his talks with Nikai, Wen criticized Koizumi's shrine visits, calling them "unfortunate", according to the Japanese trade minister. "Japanese-Sino relations are described as being in an extremely difficult situation," Nikai said. "But we agreed that we should cooperate with each other" so that ties can improve, he added.
Nikai and Chinese officials agreed to hold formal high-level talks - on hold for five months - in Beijing early this month on the simmering gas dispute in the East China Sea. Formal talks had been suspended after Koizumi's last visit to Yasukuni Shrine in October. The Chinese also agreed with Nikai on boosting economic cooperation, particularly in the fields of investment, energy conservation and environmental protection. They also agreed to hold a joint symposium on energy conservation and environment protection in May in Japan.
The Sino-Japanese gas dispute in the East China Sea has fueled tensions between the two Asian giants. At issue are Chinese natural-gas projects in the disputed waters near the so-called median line, which was drawn by Japan but has not been recognized by China. The line is meant to separate the two countries' overlapping 200-nautical-mile exclusive economic zones (EEZs). The disputed Senkaku Islands, called Diaoyu Islands by the Chinese, are on the Japanese side of the median line.
Of the various issues currently plaguing bilateral ties, this dispute is potentially the most volatile and could even lead to a military confrontation. The fact Beijing has broached the idea of resuming gas talks this month may be taken by some as indicating a softer stance on the dispute. But as things stand now, any breakthrough in the logjam is very unlikely.
In a move aimed at providing a legal basis for protecting Japan's test-drilling activities in the East China Sea, the LDP has proposed a bill to protect vessels used by marine resource explorers and fishermen in Japan's EEZ. The LDP is seeking the enactment of the bill in the current ordinary session of the diet, Japan's parliament.
The purpose of the new legislation is thought to be aimed at supporting Teikoku Oil Co, which was formally granted concessions last summer to start experimental drilling in the East China Sea, in an apparent bid to counter natural-gas exploration conducted nearby by a Chinese consortium. Teikoku Oil has not yet started experimental drilling because the Japanese government has so far been cautious about actual experimental drilling for fear of further stoking tensions with China.
Several days before visiting Beijing, Nikai, whose ministry is in charge of natural-resources development, emphasized the need to resolve the dispute with China through talks. "Some people say Japan should bravely conduct experimental drilling [in opposition to China]. But I will not choose that course of action."
Meanwhile, concerns are growing in Japanese business circles about possible ripple effects of the tense political situation on booming economic ties - as calls for a harder line on the gas dispute are also growing louder within the LDP.
Hisane Masaki is a Tokyo-based journalist, commentator and scholar on international politics and economy. Masaki's e-mail address is [email protected].
Hisane Masaki is WSN Editor Japan.