By Wu Huaizhong
Japan is in the middle of an eventful election season. Whether its political instability will further freeze China-Japan relations is worth noting. From the spring of 2020 to the present day, at least, the political situation in Japan is an important reason for the unending undulation and continuous fall of bilateral relations, a problem that has dragged on for a long time.
Right-wingers and Hawkish forces grow in strength
While there used to be cacophony in the Japanese political circle against China-Japan relations in the past, the recent negative words and deeds of certain forces within the Liberal Democratic Party have far crossed the line. There is no denying that the international political environment, especially America’s efforts to “rope in Japan to confront China”, and the public opinions within Japan have lured some Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) forces to put up a tough stance against China.
Abe, while in office, was good at controlling intra-party politics. His dominant position and his tactic of “curbing the rightists with the rightists” enabled him to put a curb on the right-wing or hawkish forces and control the highly complicated domestic political circle in relation to China. In contrast, Yoshihide Suga has no faction affiliation and his election was purely the result of the game of the various forces within LDP. Since he took office, Suga’s weakness both in the party and the government and his inability to control the situation have been fully exposed, which has led to the growth of right-wing and hawkish forces both in and out of LDP.
When he came in power, Suga repeatedly expressed his wish to foster a stable relationship with China, only to see it on a sharp downcurve in the past year. As a pragmatic politician, Suga is neither ideologically oriented nor systematically experienced in foreign strategy and diplomacy. That the China-Japan relation has fallen to a record low during his term is to a large extent because Suga, as a weak party leader and prime minister, has to cater to the demands of the aggressive and conservative right-wingers inside and outside the LDP, and give up some power over diplomatic and security policies in exchange for their support and endorsement.
The “change of paradigm” of China-Japan relations
Japan is in the middle of an intense election. The result isn’t clear yet, but we can at least discern that the candidates, representing the young and assertive politicians, are generally conservative, pro-America and anti-China. Even if they are personally moderate, they have to act tough on China to win more votes in the current political mood.
Therefore, the Japanese political situation and its changes are exerting more direct impacts and interference on China-Japan relations, and Tokyo no longer restrains itself because of China’s feelings or protests. This reflects a “change of paradigm” in bilateral relations – their way of dealing with each other or the mode of their relations have seen important changes due to political factors on the part of Japan.
Improving China-Japan relations the only right way forward
The China-Japan relationship in the post-Suga period is generally believed to be more passive with little room for improvement and little chance of a turning point, a state further consolidated by Japan’s own institutional flaws. In Japan's unique political and cultural environment, even though everyone knows things are going in the wrong direction, nobody would stand up to call the shot, take the responsibility, and turn the tide. Politicians either only get involved when they believe there is something to gain and would jump ship the minute something goes wrong, or they just content themselves with what they have achieved without making any extra effort.
The LDP is in urgent need of a politician with strategic vision and political wisdom, a person that’s hard to find in current Japan. Even Shinzo Abe is more like an “opportunist”, whose desire to serve the time far outweighs the pursuit for equity and justice.
Political elites and strategists in Japan are racking their brains on how to contain China, but their obsession with countering or curbing a neighbor that holds no hostility will eventually backfire, when the consequences may overwhelm the gains they could have had by maintaining appropriate balance. The tragedy of major countries in world history has eloquently proved that.
The LDP leaders have made the right choices many times regarding the China-Japan relations since 1972, and reality has proved that consistent with the fundamental interests of both countries. The introduction of a new administration in Japan would at least mean a chance to reset the relations.
Will the bilateral relationship between the two countries stay where it is, keep falling, bottom out, or turn for the better? The last option is doubtlessly hard, but it’s the only right way forward.
Both sides showed a kind of tacit understanding and goodwill during the just-concluded Tokyo Olympic Games, and the Japanese side has expressed, through various channels, its willingness to support the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. Next year will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan diplomatic ties. Let’s hope Tokyo will seize the opportunity of the change of regime, steer to the right path, and take new steps to promote the healthy and steady development of China-Japan relations.
(The author is deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences)