Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Warming Waters

On the eve of his five-day state visit to Japan, which began on May 6, China’s President Hu Jintao spoke of looking forward to a “warm spring for friendship between the two peoples.” It was a pleasant metaphor for a meeting in which both sides went overboard in a show of cordiality and a feeling of good will between these two Asian neighbors whose relations have been in the deep freeze for years.

The chill could be traced to China’s rising nationalism and to disagreements over the legacy of Japan’s wartime conduct in China during World War II, which was exacerbated by former prime minister Junichiro Koizumi’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo. The shrine honors 2.5 million war dead including 14 Class A war criminals.

A thaw started in September 2006 when Koizumi’s successor, Shinzo Abe , visited Beijing within days of assuming office. The visit was reciprocated in April, 2007, by China’s Premier Wen Jiabao, and the good feeling were further extended when the current Prime Minister, Yasuo Fukuda, visited China last December.

The Abe government, however, undertook other initiatives which irritated Beijing, but also demonstrated Japan’s growing anxiety over its increasingly powerful neighbor. That included declaring that the fate of Taiwan was of strategic importance to Japan, whereas Beijing considers it strictly an internal affair. Tokyo also signed a security arrangement with Australia, its first such agreement besides the one with the United States.

There are reasons why this spring and summer represent a golden opportunity for the two nations to foster better relations and solve longstanding issues. Fukuda has made improving relations with Asian neighbors a major theme of his administration. But bedeviled by a divided Diet since last July when the opposition captured control of the upper house, his popularity has tumbled below 20 percent amid increasing talk that he may be replaced.

The gloss of a successful summit does not seem to have boosted the popularity of the beleaguered Japanese premier either. His immediate goal is to hang on to power so that he can host the G-8 summit meeting, which is being held this July in a resort on Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. If Fukuda lost power he would most likely be replaced by the more nationalistic former foreign minister Taro Aso.

Hu’s personal position as China’s leader is unassailable, but his country is on the defensive at the moment because of its handling of the Olympic torch progression. After the Olympic Games are over, China may be in a less accommodating mood. This is especially true if Beijing feels humiliated by boycotts or other anti-Chinese demonstrations.

To the great relief of the Japanese, Hu took pains not to delve deeply into sensitive historical issues. For his part, Fukuda played down China’s troubles in Tibet as much as he could without looking utterly craven to the public and the conservatives in his party. There was little concrete progress reported on specific bilateral issues, ranging from the near term panic in Japan over poisoned dumplings imported from China to long-running issues, such as boundary/resource development dispute in the East China Sea.

Concerning the latter, Tokyo and Beijing each claim exclusive economic zones in the area containing the oil and gas reserves. China National Offshore Oil Corporation started production in the Chunxiao field – which is near the disputed area – in 2006, prompting Japanese fears that the Chinese were siphoning off gas from their side of the border.

The undersea oil and gas reserves in the East China Sea, while valuable, are not hugely significant for countries as big as Japan and China. But nationalistic feelings are intertwined with resources decisions and a sense that if any ground is given - on either side – even ground undersea – it will be a weakness that can be exploited in other areas.

On the boundary dispute there were hints of a deal to allow for joint development of this gas field, which is located in waters midway between Shanghai and Okinawa. That would obviously form a precedent for joint development of the other East China Sea fields such as the Kashi/Tianwaitian and Asunaro/Longjing fields and any other underwater deposits.

The official statement did not go beyond generalities, but it is understood that the two sides will meet soon to discuss how to fund the joint development and how to distribute the profits. They hope to reach an agreement before the Group of Eight meeting. Fukuda has invited China, which is not a member, to send observers to the meeting.

“There was great progress on the issue of natural resource development in the East China Sea and bright signs of a resolution came into sight in this long-running dispute. We’ll decide on the details and reach an agreement as soon as possible,” said a cabinet statement. But Chief Cabinet Secretary Nobutaka Machimura added a note of caution. “The details still cannot be made public. That is to say, we have not yet reached a complete agreement.”

The current thaw may not last long past the summer because it is, in part, a product of Beijing’s desire not to do anything that would spoil the Beijing Olympic Games, in which it has invest an enormous amount of prestige. After that more potentially antagonistic interests will probably reassert themselves. That’s because China growing self-confidence, assertiveness and expanding military, power inevitably spawn a greater sense of nationalism – and vulnerability – in Japan.

China and Japan need to flesh out the details of the proposed agreement over exploiting gas reserves in the East China Sea before the chills winds blow and the current climate of good will sours once again, as it might after the Olympic Games conclude and should the current Japanese premier be replaced with a more nationalistic leader.


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