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Thursday, June 22, 2006


China dominates as Japan questions role in Asia

Staff writer

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Japan's "preoccupation" with China — and its often contradictory views toward its giant neighbor — is very striking to an outsider, according to Mary Dejevsky, the chief leader writer for The Independent.

"At almost every session with politicians and experts, whether or not the main topic of discussion was foreign relations, China is brought up one way or another. . . . China is just permanently there in Japanese thinking at the moment," Dejevsky told the June 8 Keizai Koho Center symposium that followed a weeklong series of exchanges with Japanese lawmakers, bureaucrats, businesspeople and economists.

She said it's "interesting" that relations with China are even on the agenda of the governing Liberal Democratic Party's presidential election in September to pick a successor to Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi.

Japan's political ties with China have been severely strained since Koizumi began his annual visits to the war-related Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo in 2001, and what Koizumi's successor would do with relations with Beijing — and whether he will visit Yasukuni as prime minister — has become a topic of public debate as the nation watches the LDP prepare to choose its new leader.

"It's interesting that it's on the agenda of such a domestic issues as the LDP leadership race," which will relate to the question whether Koizumi's Yasukuni visits were "a good calculation for Japanese policy to be more assertive toward China or whether that was a bad calculation because it soured relations with Beijing and put relations on hold for most of his prime ministership," she noted.

Dejevsky observed that Japan in fact does very well in economic relations with China, which last year topped the United States as its largest trading partner.

"Japan has managed something that neither Europe nor the U.S. has managed, which is to gain a profit — to have a positive balance of payments with China. . . . This is something that nobody else has been able to do," she said.

But by watching China more closely than Europeans do, Japan also seems to see risks in China more quickly — sources of possible disruptions to the Chinese economy, potential instability in Chinese politics, the massive movement of population from rural to urban areas, and unrest in rural factories that often go unreported, she said. "On the one hand, China is entirely positive for you, but on the other, you see problems ahead."

Japan does not seem to view China as a military threat in the same way the U.S. does, nor does it appear to see it as a potential economic threat, Dejevsky said.

But Japan does view the rise of China as a threat to its presence in Asia, she pointed out. This is something that Japanese people she talked to would not say outright but was evident as an underlying tone in all the meetings, she added.

This, she said, will eventually boil down to the question of who will take the leadership role in Asia — Japan, China or somebody else — and how Japan will approach China in the future will depend on the answer to that question.

"That reminds me of how Europe and the U.S. see Russia: whether you see it as a weak country — which is dangerous because it's weak — or whether you see it as a strong country — which is dangerous because potentially it's going to be so strong and dominant," Dejevsky said.

And just as the question about Russia has no answer, it's not possible to say "whether China is more dangerous because it's going to be weak . . . or whether it will be so strong that it will be dominant and make it difficult for normal relations between countries in the Asian region," she noted.

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