[Viewpoint]Elephants on the grassA sudden winter chill has cooled the Korean Peninsula, but a warm breeze is blowing between China and Japan. With Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in office, an era of hot politics and hot economic ties has arrived for the two countries. Last month, Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party and the Communist Party of China had a meeting in Beijing. Shenzhen, the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’s naval destroyer, entered Tokyo Bay. It was the first Chinese navy vessel to visit a Japanese port in 110 years.
The first high-level economic dialogue between Japan and China in Beijing earlier this month is a prelude of a Sino-Japanese honeymoon. The two countries agreed to cooperate on the environment and on energy conservation technology. They will also share information for protecting intellectual property rights. China showed good faith by promising to import an additional 150 tons of Japanese rice by the end of the year. The two countries are reinforcing cooperation to pursue mutual national interests.
China has a trade deficit with Japan, with China importing the most. Through imports from Japan, China has been provided with capital equipment and technology for economic development. Thanks to increasing exports to rapidly growing China, Japan has recently entered a period of complete economic recovery.
China and Japan are indispensable to each other for the economic development of both countries. To expand economic cooperation, Tokyo and Beijing are making efforts to develop seabed resources in the East China Sea that have been at the center of a territorial dispute.
In fact, China and Japan have been clashing on issues such as history textbooks, Yasukuni Shrine visits and the Nanjing Massacre, and they haven’t been able to resolve the territorial disputes associated with natural resources.
The Diaoyutai Islands (Senkaku Islands) are an area of strategic importance, and the United States and Japan are planning to build a semi-submarine base in the waters near the islands. Moreover, Japan and China have been confronting each other over territorial rights to an atoll in the open sea in the Pacific Ocean, known as Okinotorishima. They both want to claim the maritime resources surrounding the atoll.
Lately, Tokyo and Beijing, which experienced periods of economic closeness yet political estrangement in the past, are finding that they have shared interests. China-Japan relations froze rapidly because former Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi made visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, but as former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China in October 2006, the mood became reconciliatory.
Japan cannot afford to give up the giant Chinese market for economic growth, and diplomatically, Tokyo is unable to play a leading role in East Asia and the international community without the cooperation of China. China not only needs capital and technology from Japan but also must improve its relationship with Japan in order to check the growing military alliance between Japan and the United States, not to mention Japan’s increasingly close relationship with Taiwan.
A series of summit meetings are scheduled from now until early next year with Fukuda planning to visit China and a visit by President Hu Jintao to Japan. The two countries are enjoying earnest reconciliation. Hu will be the first Chinese leader to visit Japan since Jiang Zemin visited Tokyo in 1998. The visit is expected to enhance strategic reciprocity for both countries.
Korea hopes to play a central role in Korea-Japan-China cooperation, and by going along with the improvements in Sino-Japanese relations, we will create a new opportunity for regional cooperation in Northeast Asia. At present, Tokyo and Beijing are planning a tripartite dialogue with Washington. There is a possibility that these nations have cooperative mechanisms surrounding the Korean Peninsula that exclude South and North Korea.
If this is the case, Russia will not agree since such a mechanism could turn into a complicated China, Japan and U.S. alliance that regards Russia as a mutual threat in terms of energy security. China is uncomfortable with Japan taking a leadership role in Asia, and Japan will not be pleased if China takes the role either. That’s why China and Japan would like to include the United States as a mediator.
In rapidly changing Northeast Asian politics, Korea needs to have a solid strategy and calm disposition so that both China and Japan always trust Korea as an ally. We can reinforce the Korea-United States alliance, which is a valuable diplomatic asset for Korea, and use it as diplomatic leverage. At this juncture, we need to contemplate China’s diplomatic strategy of acknowledging differences yet pursuing common goals. Elephants trample the grass whether they are fighting or in love. Surrounded by powerful neighbors, Korea should come up with a plan to coexist with them.
*The writer is a professor of international politics at Korea University. Translation by the JoongAng Daily staff
by Ahn Yin-hay