Moderator: Koichi Mochizuki, senior writer
Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua, whose more than nine-year tenure is the longest among Chinese ambassadors to Japan, will permanently return to China in May. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited China in October last year and Chinese President Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Japan in June. Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, who will visit China from April 24 and meet with President Xi, and Ambassador Cheng, who has experience of working as a Japanese interpreter, talked about the Japan-China relationship, which has been put on a path to improvement.
Question: How do you feel about concluding your tenure of more than nine years in Japan?
Ambassador Cheng Yonghua: I’ve been in Japan for a total of 30 years since I first came here in 1973 as a student. I’ve worked at the Chinese embassy for 26 years and 20 of those years were in the Heisei era. I was fortunate to have many good Japanese friends who supported me. So I could manage to fulfill my duty as ambassador.
Toshihiro Nikai: Mr. Cheng has been working for the sake of Japan and China for nine years and two months as ambassador. I’m sure there were many ups and downs and you had some hard days. But I think everything was settled peacefully thanks to Mr. Cheng.
Q: When you’re assigned to Japan as ambassador in 2010, the Japanese-Sino relationship was strained after a Chinese fishing boat collided [with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel] in the waters off the Senkaku Islands in September.
Cheng: When I took up my post in February 2010, the atmosphere of the bilateral relationship was rather good. I was ready to significantly promote exchanges with Japan. Then suddenly the accident happened. It was originally accidental, but it seemed the handling of the issue by the Japanese government (led by the Democratic Party of Japan) escalated the problem. It was shocking. After that, the relationship was thrown into the biggest crisis in history due to Japan’s purchase of the (Senkaku) islands (for nationalization) and wartime history issues. To be honest, it was really heartbreaking for me as a person who has long been working for relations with Japan. That was the hardest time for me. The situation improved little by little after we continued to talk to each other.
Q: Japan and China agreed on four points for improving the bilateral relationship in November 2014 and held a summit. The relationship began to improve from then.
Cheng: I was relieved when the four shared views were announced. I thought it would take much effort to heal scars and improve the bilateral relationship.
Q: In May 2015, then-LDP General Council Chairman Nikai brought a Japanese delegation of about 3,000 people to China and met with President Xi at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People. It was a major step toward improving the bilateral relationship.
Cheng: Back then, I was preparing for Mr. Nikai’s visit to China. President Xi made some impressive remarks when he met Mr. Nikai and they had a wide and major influence on Japanese and Chinese people. One of his comments was: “The Chinese and Japanese peoples will jointly maintain friendship for generations.” I heard the remark for the first time in a long time after the two countries went through a difficult time. The other remark was that he expects young people from the two countries to sow the seeds of friendship so as to make China-Japan friendship grow into a big tree or even a luxuriant forest. These remarks were very heartwarming. Mr. Nikai’s eliciting these remarks from President Xi was a major achievement of his and was a big step in the history of China-Japan exchanges. Mr. Nikai is an “old friend” who is widely trusted by the Chinese leader and the public.
Q: You’ll visit China from April 24 as a special envoy of the prime minister to deliver his personal letter and attend an international forum on the “Belt and Road” initiative. You’re also scheduled to meet with President Xi. What kinds of results do you expect to achieve?
Nikai: This time I’ll travel to China as a special envoy of the prime minister. So I’d like to find a clue to the future of the bilateral relationship according to the prime minister’s wishes. I have many friends in China, and I have support from Japan. So I’m confident that I can produce adequate results.
Q: What do you think about Japan’s stance of participating in China’s Belt and Road initiative?
Nikai: The initiative was advocated by China and is widely acknowledged and anticipated by the international community. So it’s natural for Japan to support the initiative. I hope that the major role that Japan will play in China’s proposal will significantly contribute to future bilateral ties. Chairman of the Japan Business Federation [Keidanren] will also join me, reflecting the business community’s great expectations for our upcoming visit to China.
Q: President Xi will visit Japan for the summit of the Group of 20 major economies in Osaka in June.
Cheng: The Japanese and Chinese governments are now preparing for President Xi’s attendance at the G20. It would be his first visit to Japan since coming to power and also be his first private trip to Japan in a decade. China has been supporting and hoping for the success of the Osaka G20. I believe the international conference will provide President Xi with opportunities to meet with Prime Minister Abe as well as the political, business, and other communities. Based on the improved bilateral relationship, we’ll be able to get back on the right track and offer a new direction for the resumption and the future of the Peace, Friendship and Exchange Initiative.
Q: China’s gross domestic product surpassed Japan’s in 2010. And China has made significant technological progress, holding the largest number of patents related to the 5G next-generation communications standard. What do you think of the impact caused by these changes?
Cheng: China has achieved remarkable growth and development. The country’s GDP surpassed Japan’s and there are new technological fields in which China leads. These were achieved by efforts made by all the Chinese people and China’s years of implementation of policies of reform and opening-up and communication and cooperation with countries across the globe. But there are still regional disparities in China and per capita income is quite low. Because of these things, China still defines itself as a developing nation overall. Japan contributed a lot to and benefited from China’s policies of reform and opening-up. So it’s a win-win result. The Japan-China Joint Statement of 2008 says we’re partners for cooperation and should not pose a threat to each other. Reciprocal recognition and acknowledgement are major issues for us. If we mutually complement each other as true partners in cooperation and take advantage of each other’s strengths, it will definitely benefit not only Japan’s and China’s development but also Asia’s development. It will be a constructive force.
Q: There is much talk about U.S.-China conflict. Japan has formed an alliance with the U.S. So if the conflict escalates, will that negatively affect the Japan-China relationship?
Nikai: Even though the U.S. and China are at odds, they both conform to standards of propriety. So I don’t think the conflict will escalate so much. In such a conflict, Japan should mediate to the best of its ability. I think Japan has enough spirit to do that.
Cheng: We’re discussing the trade dispute with the U.S. But Japan and the U.S. also have had trade conflicts before. China and the U.S. are cooperating with each other in many aspects. A country-to-country relationship is fraught with conflicts and problems, but also involves cooperation to a large extent. I hope each of the relationships between China and Japan, between China and the U.S., and Japan and the U.S. will advance simultaneously or serve as a mutually constructive and positive factors.
Q: More and more Japanese people are seeing China as a threat due to a surge in its defense spending. What do you think of the future of the relationship between Japan and China?
Cheng: Communication is important to make them not feel China is a threat. As the political document between the two countries indicates, mutual understanding should be promoted through intergovernmental and other levels of talks. But we don’t have mutual trust in the fields of politics and security. That is the biggest scar left by our deteriorated relations. Our challenge is to restore mutual trust to heal the scar. The scar has been significantly healed. But we need to make much more efforts.
Communication between the two peoples are also important. Tourism and other public exchanges are extremely important. Both the Chinese and Japanese languages have the proverb, “Seeing is believing.” We can get information on each other’s countries on the Internet. But seeing and listening to things with your own eyes and ears in each other’s country is so different from doing so on the Internet. Last year, the human traffic between the two countries reached 11 million. I think the figure will further increase. We can have a stable friendship by improving the national sentiments and promoting mutual understanding.
Nikai: The world “tourism” in the Japanese language originated from the passage “Seeing the light of a country” in the ancient Chinese classic “the Book of Changes [Yi Jing].” Tourism nurtures peace and is an industry viable only in peaceful nations. Tourism only blooms when countries trust each other and their peoples are ready to actively communicate with their counterpart countries. I think Japanese and Chinese leaders should make nationwide efforts.