May 30, 2008, Yoshihisa Komori, Robert Sutter and Ming Wan

(click to enlarge) Ming Wan, Yoshihisa Komori and Robert Sutter at the seminar, "Managing Sino-U.S.-Japan Relations: Recalibrating the Triangle," on May 30, 2008, at the East-West Center in Washington.

Managing Sino-U.S.-Japan Relations: Recalibrating the Triangle

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(Washington, DC) May 30 – PRC President Hu Jintao’s recent five-day visit to Japan was generally regarded by the international community as a significant and successful meeting, signifying a warming trend in Sino-Japanese bilateral relations. But what can this warming trend tell us about the future dynamics of Sino-Japanese relations, and what might this mean for U.S. engagement in the region?  How should U.S. policy in the region react to accommodate this so-called “Warm Spring”? On May 30, 2008, three leading experts on Sino-Japanese-U.S. relations—Yoshihisa Komori, Editor-at-Large of The Sankei Shimbun ; Robert Sutter, Visiting Professor of Asian Studies at Georgetown University; and Ming Wan, Professor of Government and Politics at George Mason University—shared their insights on the future of Sino-U.S.-Japan relations at a seminar at the East-West Center in Washington.

According to Ming Wan, this high-level exchange between the two Asian powers revealed intentions to emphasize equality and cooperation between the two nations rather than historical differences and other controversial issues. To ensure a positive tone for the summit, a number of sensitive topics—cross-Strait relations, the Olympic torch relay, and the protests in Tibet—were underplayed. Even the highly emotional case of poisoned dumplings did not prevent Hu from visiting Japan. The “Warm Spring” climate established during the visit also motivated the two sides to take subsequent steps towards cooperation, as demonstrated by China’s initial decision to allow Japan’s rescue teams to be the first allowed into the country to assist with post-earthquake relief efforts. Although there is a new sense of optimism in the air, Ming Wan said the two sides remain cautious and view their relations with “eyes wide open.”

The recent visit also produced a joint statement by President Hu and Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, in which both parties agreed to “advance their strategic and mutually beneficial relations” and “progress on the path of peace.” This statement featured a notable change in tone from the three preceding exchanges of leaders between the two nations.

However, discussant Yoshihisa Komori stated that many deep concerns of the Japanese people were left unaddressed. Territorial disputes over energy resources in the South China Sea, Chinese military modernization, human rights violations in Xinjiang and Tibet, and product safety all have created much discontent among the Japanese public, and have fostered a negative impression of the Chinese government—especially among younger Japanese. Although Komori observed that there is much hope in Japan for the furthering of good relations with China, he also noted that the sea of protesters present during Hu’s stay is proof that the Japanese public is not entirely at ease, and remains unafraid to denounce the PRC’s actions—notwithstanding the Japanese government’s attempt to emphasize the positive.

As America follows the developments in Sino-Japanese relations, Robert Sutter highlighted the importance for U.S. leaders to be mindful of the dynamics of this evolving triangle. One lesson for American policymakers is to recognize the asymmetrical stakes in the trilateral relationship, as well as the constraints on Sino-Japanese tensions. The U.S. interest has been and will remain to support a favorable balance of power in East Asia, and U.S. policymakers will need to  be very cautious about direct intervention in the face of Sino-Japanese disputes. This balance of power can be fostered through a healthy diplomatic process, with particular attention to the strategic importance of Japan as a linchpin for regional security.