Chinese scholar expects gradual improvement in ties with Japan

A leading Chinese expert on Japanese affairs is predicting a gradual improvement in relations between Asia's two biggest economies after this Sunday's upper house election in Japan, regardless of Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's hawkish political beliefs.

"It is welcoming for China that there will be political stability," Yang Bojiang, a deputy director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said, presuming Abe's Liberal Democratic Party and its junior coalition partner New Komeito will win a majority in the House of Councillors voting.

Yang said in a recent interview he expects Abe to make no compromises on the sovereignty of a group of islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus in Japan and Diaoyus in China, but at the same time, "whether he likes or not" he is likely to come under pressure from the private sector and a range of other quarters to water down the current difficult situation after the election.

The dispute over the uninhabited islands, which flared anew after the government then led by the Democratic Party of Japan in September last year bought a major portion of them from a Japanese private owner, is not that simple and will require significant time before it is settled, he said.

"Diplomacy is about minimizing friction and effectively controlling problems, not just trying to clear them up," the 48-year-old scholar said, while proposing China and Japan take "economic cooperation" as a cue to lay the ground for mending bilateral ties as business entities of the two countries are increasingly interdependent.

On the chance of resuming high-level political contacts, Yang said it would gain momentum if Abe, who became Japan's prime minister for the second time last December, could send clear signals of his intent to initiate "sincere" discussions on issues deemed important for Beijing and Tokyo, including those related to the islands.

The scholar said he does not exclude the possibility of Abe and the new Chinese leadership holding face-to-face talks for the first time on the sidelines of the summit of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in early October in Indonesia or at other multilateral gatherings scheduled for later this year.

Largely because of simmering conflicts over which country controls the islands, no official talks between the top leaders of Japan and China have been held since last May in Beijing.

The leaders cannot avoid discussing issues related to the islands when they meet, but it would not mean that they have to specify what kinds of problems they are, Yang said.

Given that China and Japan already know each other's position on the islands and there remain huge differences in views over sovereignty, he suggested Abe refrain from defining the issues to create an environment for political dialogue.

If Abe's LDP-led coalition secures a majority in the upper house following its landslide victory last December in the House of Representatives election, there is lingering speculation Abe, who will not need to call a general election until 2016, may visit Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo on the Aug. 15 anniversary of Japan's surrender in World War II.

Yang said relations between the two countries would be unrecoverable if Abe visits the shrine that honors convicted Japanese war criminals along with war dead and is regarded, especially by China and South Korea, as a symbol of Japan's militarist past.

"However, I personally believe that Prime Minister Abe will not visit the shrine," he said. "Because if he does, not only with China, Japan's ties with South Korea, (which are also frayed by a territorial dispute over a different set of islands), would be hopeless."

Yang said one of the most fundamental points to watch for China is whether Abe's government will be stable enough and continues to enjoy today's high approval ratings even if it rules for a long time.

"I have some reservations as to the stability," he said, noting public support for Abe's government could dwindle if many citizens in Japan feel no real recovery in the economy in coming months.