Japan’s ambassador to China, Mr Koreshige Anami, said last Wednesday that Beijing opposed Tokyo’s bid for a permanent seat in the UN Security Council, and that even if Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi stopped visiting the Yasukuni Shrine, China would still not reverse its stance and support Japan.
I posed this question to someone well-versed in China’s official position. But he asked instead: “Why should China object?” He did not elaborate further, probably for fear of saying the wrong thing if he talked further.
Why does China object to Japan’s bid? Does China really object to Japan’s bid? On the surface, the answer is clear, or else the Chinese authorities would not have allowed – at least tacitly – the numerous anti-Japan demonstrations that took place in several major cities; or Chinese Vice-Premier Wu Yi would not have cancelled a meeting with Mr Koizumi, citing the excuse of “returning home to handle important and urgent official business”.
But if we delve deeper, the facts may not be that simple. China will not suffer any big losses if Japan becomes a permanent member of the United Nations Security Council. But if it objects to Japan’s membership, it may incur Tokyo’s wrath, and the negative fallout is difficult to estimate.
- First, according to the two reform plans proposed by UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, be it the ‘6+3’ or ‘8+2’ plan, the new permanent members will not enjoy veto rights. This means that China’s status at the Security Council will not be threatened by Japan’s entry. There would still only be one Asian country with the veto right, and that country would remain China.
- Second, as long as Japan is excluded from the Security Council, Tokyo will require the United States to speak on its behalf there. This means that if China takes the lead in opposing Japan’s entry, the move will unite its two strongest rivals – the US and Japan – into containing it. Only people who act without due consideration will do that.
Judging by the words and action of Chinese leaders on Sino-Japanese ties recently, there is no evidence of Chinese leaders acting without due consideration. In a report made at the Great Hall of the People to thousands of cadres on April 19, Chinese Foreign Minister Li Zhaoxing said that China is “at the important stage in the building of an all-round, well-off society, and there is a need to understand the importance of handling well Sino-Japanese ties from the overall and strategic perspective”.
Simply put, Mr Li’s message is: China’s leaders have no wish to damage ties with Japan, as China is unable to deal with the fallout now.
If we look deeper, China’s strategic aim has always been very clear: By exerting pressure on Japan to resolve several issues between China and Japan, especially the issue of history (and including Taiwan), China hopes to utilise the opportunity afforded by Japan’s UN hopes to set conditions that will bring Japan to its side in the future.
Thus, Chinese leaders do not oppose Japan’s bid, but they will not support it unconditionally. They hope that by displaying a tough attitude, China can make clear to Japan that it has to compromise on the history issue and gain China’s approval before it can enter the Security Council.
Why is the history problem so important? It is because the Chinese Community Party grows and thrives on the basis of patriotism and views about foreign invasions against China, especially the Japanese invasion. As long as the history issue is not resolved, China will not make any concessions to Japan, even small ones.
If damage in ties between China and Japan will not benefit China’s interests, it will not benefit Japan’s either. For long, Japan has been seen on the global stage as “first-rate economically, but second-rate politically”. One major reason is that Japan’s neighbours do not feel it has sincerely repented for World War II.
Tokyo may have made several public apologies. But if it apologises one day and then says the very next day that ‘there is nothing inappropriate about visiting the Yasukuni Shrine’, who will believe the sincerity of that apology?
Japan can, of course, suspect that China harbours ulterior motives in clinging to the history issue. But if Mr Koizumi thinks the same way as Mr Anami, why not announce that he is ending his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine? Or move the memorial tablets of the 14 Class A war criminals out of the shrine, thereby gaining the moral high ground? He can then watch to see if China finds any excuse to object to Japan’s UN bid.
The fact that Japan is unable to do any of this shows that in fighting for the political influence comparable to its economic status, its biggest rival is neither China nor other countries, but itself. Post-World War II Japan has become an important stabilising force in the region. If it does not continue to shoot itself in the foot, no other country can justify stopping Japan from playing a bigger role on the international stage.
This is the problem facing Japan, and East Asia as well. The region is rising economically, but politically we live as if it were a half century ago. Problems on the Korean peninsula and in the Taiwan Strait are still with us. Japan and China are still at loggerheads. But to quote Singapore Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong, ‘we should be looking ahead, looking towards the future and how we can work together, rather than be tied up with the past’.
And needless to say, being tied up with the past benefits no one.