Play Down Beijing’s Faux Pas

by 岡崎久彦 on 2003年10月21日

China appears to have made a diplomatic faux pas in a recent summit with Japan. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is said to have told Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi that he would welcome Koizumi’s visit to China “at an appropriate time” and would be willing to visit Japan. When added that a “good atmosphere” conducive to mutual visits should be created and expressed hope that Koizumi would show wisdom in solving bilateral problems.

The Asahi Shimbun newspaper reported that Wen implicitly demanded that Koizumi make no more visits to Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, the memorial for Japan’s war dead.

It is a Sino-Japanese diplomatic understanding that Japanese and Chinese leaders reciprocate visits. However, since Koizumi’s one-day visit to Beijing in 2001, there has been no return visit to Tokyo by a Chinese premier. And Koizumi’s official visit to China has yet to materialize.

Newspaper reports have suggested that China demanded, as a condition for reciprocating visits, that Koizumi stop paying his respects at Yasukuni. If the reports are accurate, China seems to have committed an unusual breach of diplomatic protocol.

Until a 1985 visit to Yasukuni by then-Prime Minister Yasuhiro Nakasone stirred up diplomatic trouble, top Japanese leaders had freely visited the shrine without protests or intervention by China and other countries for 40 years since the end of World War II — except during a brief ban by Occupation authorities.

Even after Yasukuni visits by Japanese prime ministers became an issue in Japan-China relations — following reports by a Japanese newspaper — China did not demand a solution to the problem as a condition for the mutual visits. I wonder why China made it a condition recently, and how it will settle the confusion?

Diplomatic solutions do not sit well with historical issues. Historical grudges between Japan and South Korea, for example, cannot be solved easily; they will last centuries.

Korean grudges against Japanese date back to the Battles of Bunroku and Keicho from 1592 to 1598 — during the invasion of Korea by Toyotomi Hideyoshi’s forces. From the Tokugawa Period through the Meiji Era, most of Korea’s patriotic tales were based on those grudges. Similarly, in Boston, when tour guides praise “Americans’ heroic resistance to British oppression” more than 200 years ago, some British tourists may be displeased.

Diplomacy is the art of countries working out a compromise while maximizing their respective gains based on national interests. No government would dare sacrifice part of its national interest because of historic grudges.

Japan and China often hold business summits at various locations so that there would be no practical problem with delays in the prime ministers’ mutual visits. Perhaps that’s why China feels it can use the official visit as a diplomatic card in the Yasukuni issue. But it should be remembered that the mutual visits are no small matter in terms of diplomatic courtesy.

How is China going to deal with problems stemming from this discourtesy?

Fortunately, China has not linked the prime minister’s official visit with a solution to the Yasukuni issue in any official documents. Perhaps the present Chinese leadership is even embarrassed by the legacy of the faux pas of former President Jiang Zemin’s time. The best way to deal with the issue is to keep a low profile and let it die quietly.

Historical issues with China were originally stirred up in Japan. Learning from the past, Japanese should refrain from drawing inferences from Chinese officials’ remarks. The issue will be settled once and for all if everybody understands that China, under experienced leaders, is not making outrageous demands.

Some pundits argue that Japan should show its wisdom by establishing a substitute facility for Yasukuni. Most commentators, though, oppose the idea, as do most lawmakers of the governing Liberal Democratic Party. Even if such a useless place were established, future prime ministers would most likely ignore it and go to Yasukuni anyway.

If Japan were to build a new facility with taxpayers’ money to help China temporarily save face following its faux pas, it would remain a symbol of China’s diplomatic arrogance and Japan’s diplomatic humiliation for a long time. It would only perpetuate the faux pas.