Frank Ching EJ Insight

How Japan's longest serving prime minister dealt with China

Less than two weeks after becoming prime minister on 26 September 2006, Shinzo Abe was on a plane bound for Beijing, breaking the tradition of Japanese leaders visiting Washington on their first overseas trip.

The reason: To mend relations that had badly deteriorated during the five-year tenure of his predecessor, Junichiro Koizumi, who was detested by China for his annual visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, where Japan's war dead, including those classified as Class A war criminals, were honored.

China welcomed Abe with open arms. The Japanese leader met with the country's top three leaders - President Hu Jintao, top legislator Wu Bangguo and Premier Wen Jiabao.

The following year, Premier Wen made what he called an "ice-melting" trip to Japan, where he struck a conciliatory tone. While addressing the Japanese Diet, Wen for the first time acknowledged that China was the long-term recipient of Japanese aid which, he said, "the Chinese people will never forget."

Abe, while improving relations with China, also knew the importance of balance. Thus, he proposed the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which included the United States, India and Australia as well as Japan.

The first Abe administration came to an abrupt end in September 2007 when the prime minister resigned.

Paradoxically, the one-year Abe premiership was followed by five years during which Japan saw five prime ministers.

The last one, Yoshihiko Noda, decided in September 2012 to purchase the remaining non-government-owned Senkaku Islands - claimed by China as the Diaoyus – in an attempt to keep them from falling into the hands of an ultranationalist, who would have used them to provoke China. But China chose to disbelieve this rationale and excoriated Japan for changing the status quo, igniting anti-Japan protests across China.

In this environment Abe, his ulcerative colitis under control, won a second term as prime minister, just a month after Xi Jinping became China's leader. Once again, he had to deal with a China mess that he had inherited from his predecessor.

But this time, repairing relations with China was much more difficult. For one thing, the Xi leadership treated the Diaoyu crisis as an opportunity to advance its territorial claim.

Just days before Abe assumed office, a Chinese marine surveillance aircraft intruded into the airspace of the Japanese-administered islands.

Then a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Hong Lei, declared: "The Chinese side calls on Japan to halt all entries into water and airspace around the islands."

In December 2013, to mark the first anniversary of his second term, Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine. This triggered criticism not only by China and South Korea, but by the United States as well.

The following year, China took a number of actions, including announcing that December 13 would be observed each year as National Memorial Day to commemorate the Nanjing massacre of 1937, and that September 3 would be observed each year as Victory Over Japan Day. These announcements were made almost seven decades after the war ended.

Such an environment was clearly not conducive to improving Sino-Japanese relations. Yet, when an opportunity arose for Abe to visit Beijing that November, he grasped it. At a meeting on the sidelines of the APEC summit, Xi and Abe posed, unsmiling, for the cameras.

It was a historic meeting, but it was far from enough to normalize relations. Abe's hope, made clear in 2017 to the Chinese side, was that normalization meant that he should be invited to China on a state visit and, in return, Xi would pay a state visit to Japan. After those initial visits, summit meetings in each other's country should be regular occurrences.

Abe got his state visit to Beijing in October 2018. Subsequently, Xi accepted an invitation to visit Japan in spring 2020, but then the coronavirus intervened. Now, Abe has retired before completing the process of normalization.

Abe has been persistent in pursuing a normal relationship with China. But he has also shown determination while pursuing other challenging goals, such as making friends with President Donald Trump. Abe himself said that his biggest crisis was when the U.S. left the Trans-Pacific Partnership. His first reaction was that the TPP was finished but then, after a walk on the beach with then Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, the two men came up with a strategy to conclude the trade accord without the United States. The success of that effort is testament to Abe's ability and fortitude.

Asked to comment on Abe's resignation, China's foreign ministry spokesman declined.

However, Xinhua reported that in a telephone conversation with Yoshihide Suga, Japan's new leader, Xi seemingly affirmed Abe's achievements by saying that "China-Japan relations have gotten back on track and maintained a positive momentum."




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