China and its neighbors

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China and its neighbors

I went to Shenyang in China’s Liaoning province last month. I was a guest of the Northeast Asian Economic Forum sponsored by the Consulate General of Korea in the city. I met a Chinese scholar whose job title was deputy director of a research center on Japanese invasions. He was devoted to the study of Japan’s invasion of China. He said the research center was established last spring. This demonstrates how China was preparing to build a strong case to respond to Japan’s attempts at revisionist history concerning its past aggressions.

The Chinese media named four important dates for this year. One of them was Sept. 2, when Japan surrendered in the Second World War. Korea too is obviously not happy with nationalistic signs in Japan. What dates should we pay attention to? Aug. 15 is the most important as it marks the 70th anniversary of liberation from Japanese colonial rule. On June 22, the country also marks the 50-year anniversary of normalization of diplomatic relationship with Japan. Japan is at the heart of key dates on the calendar this year for both Korea and China. During last year’s visit to Seoul, Chinese President Xi Jinping proposed the two countries jointly hold memorial activities and ceremonies on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the victory of the War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression and of the liberation of the Korean Peninsula from Japan’s colonial rule.

Seoul should use the momentum of the 50th anniversary of diplomatic relations to break the ice with Tokyo. Then in August, timed with the 70th anniversary of liberation, Korea must assert its objection to the Shinzo Abe government’s distortion of history and its decisive turn to the right. We need to exercise wisdom to adequately modulate our position toward Japan. We can take a cue from Chinese diplomacy with Japan.

On the surface, China maintains a stern and even hawkish attitude toward Japan. But signs of a new direction have surfaced. A conciliatory note was sounded during the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference last November when the Chinese Communist Party Politburo Standing Committee, leaders of the party and the military set a foreign agenda and guidance for diplomacy for the present and future. It was only the second time such a conference was held. The new diplomatic agenda under Xi revolved around the major goals of empowering China through amicable relationships with its neighbors that bring mutual benefits. China’s priority in foreign relations traditionally has been relations with major countries followed by neighborhood diplomacy, relations with developing countries and multilateral diplomacy.

In recent meetings, Xi placed a higher priority on neighborhood diplomacy over relations with major countries. The U.S. media said it was Xi’s version of U.S. President Barack Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia. It hypothesized that China won’t jeopardize its relations with neighbors to improve ties with the United States.

During the latest conference discussing Beijing’s repositioning of its foreign agenda, a new concept of “great neighborhood” diplomacy arose. If neighborhood diplomacy referred to immediate neighbors in the Asia-Pacific, a great neighborhood would include other countries a little more geographically distant from China, across the sea or the continent. Xi proposed a “New Silk Road” that would include Central Asian and Eastern European countries. China has made partnerships with 72 nations. It aims to use those networks to create new paths on land and sea to connect Asia with Europe and Africa with China at the center.

Xi emphasizes a greater neighborhood for two reasons. Vitality in the economies of Asia is crucial as the region could replace the United States and Europe as the next center of the global economy. To become a global superpower, China must cement its regional status. That is why top priority would be given to maintaining good and beneficial relationships with Asian neighbors.

Japan is in central Asia. Xi ratcheted down his rhetoric against Japan during last month’s first state memorial ceremony for Nanjing Massacre victims. Xi’s criticism centered on “a small minority of militarists” and said hatred and war responsibilities should not lie with the entire nation. His words were a stark contrast with the sharp tone he took against the current right-wing Tokyo government during last year’s ceremony on the 69th anniversary of victory of the war of resistance. Among the important dates the Chinese highlighted for this year was Sept. 2, when Japan surrendered to allied forces after two atomic bombings - not Sept. 3, when China declared victory in its wars with Japan. The Sino-Japanese relationship is subtly thawing.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is also watching his own steps. He stayed away from the controversial Yasukuni Shrine last month. Abe may again irk Beijing when Tokyo and Washington revise defense cooperation guidelines during Abe’s visit to the United States in May. But then he will likely up the charm offensive to mend ties as a part of his efforts to revive the Japanese economy. No Asian economies can improve without the help of China.

The changes in the Sino-Japanese relationship will affect our role. We could offer to extend China’s ambitious New Silk Road vision by stretching it across the sea to Japan. It would jibe with President Park Geun-hye’s Eurasia Initiative. We have proposed railway service between Seoul and Sinuiju, the border city with China in North Korea. The railway should connect Beijing, Pyongyang and Seoul. Such a vision would be most meaningful for neighboring countries celebrating the 70th year since the end of the war.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 28, Page 28

*The author is a JoongAng Ilbo specialist on China.

by You Sang-chul

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