By Akio Yasaka, Taipei chief correspondent
As a newspaper reporter, I have witnessed some unforgettable scenes. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China in November 2014 was one of them. Abe arrived in Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Conference, and I was shocked to see how displeased and unwelcoming the hosting Chinese leader Xi Jinping looked when he met with the Japanese premier.
It turned out that Xi’s expression reflected his two years of accumulated frustration and indignation since Abe took power. Abe had consistently refused to give in to Xi’s demands that Japan make concessions on issues over Yasukuni Shrine and the Senkakus (Ishigaki, Okinawa) prior to holding a Japan-China summit meeting. Abe never wavered: “I will meet with Xi only if there are no pre-conditions.”
The Chinese government had tried in various ways to change Abe’s mind, including working through pro-China groups in Japan.
Previous administrations would have been shaken by China’s demands and tried to achieve some sort of happy medium. Abe, however, never budged, and the Chinese government relented eventually. The resulting 25-minute dialogue held between Abe and Xi for the first time marked the most decisive win for Japan, unprecedented in the long diplomatic history of the two countries.
Before Abe assumed office, bilateral negotiations with China had mostly followed China’s agenda, with Japan being subjected to an airing of grievances over issues such as understanding of history, the comfort women during the Sino-Japanese War, and the Senkakus. At the same time, Japan offered China economic cooperation through official development assistance (ODA) programs. This lopsided scenario lasted for a long time. Abe changed it little by little.
In 2015, Abe issued a statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the end of the war in which he stressed that Japan should not make future generations keep apologizing forever. Since then, Abe stopped responding to Chinese demands for Japan to apologize and repent over historical issues. By doing so, Abe deprived China of the “history card” that it had played for a long time. Abe also made the courageous decision to put an end to ODA for China. These decisions finally made Japan-China relationship a future-oriented one.
Even in matters not directly related to Japan such as the South China Sea, Abe didn’t hesitate to say what needed to be said to China. Under Abe’s leadership, Japan often played the leading role in interactions between the two countries.
Backed by a close relationship with U.S. President Donald Trump and from the position of partner in the Japan-U.S. alliance, Abe formulated toward China a firm posture that gained respect from countries in Southeast Asia and elsewhere in the region. “Abe was a leading figure who pushed back against China’s threats. He was always there for us, and we appreciated his strength,” said a researcher at a Taiwanese think-tank friendly with the Taiwan’s ruling party, which has been under pressure from China.
Of course, the Abe administration’s China diplomacy was not perfect. I sometimes wondered whether it should have shown stronger resolve against the Chinese ships’ intrusions into areas surrounding the Senkakus. It was clearly a mistake for Abe to have said to Xi, “We would like to invite you to Japan as a state guest when the cherry blossoms are in full bloom.” As a matter of diplomatic etiquette, a country’s leader can’t withdraw an invitation. As such, this invitation to Xi could become a hindrance to Japan’s future diplomacy.
The day after Abe’s Aug. 28 news conference announcing his impending resignation, China’s Global Times under the state media People’s Daily ran an editorial that stressed: “Japan is a country that China must befriend. In China policy, Japan and the U.S. are not necessarily one and the same.” China sees the resignation of Abe as an opportunity to attempt to drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S.
The next administration has a responsibility to stand firm and maintain the Abe administration’s posture toward China as it deals with yet-unresolved issues.