By Mario Esteban (for Safe Democracy)

Mario Esteban analyzes the relationship between China and Japan since the nomination of the new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the conversion of North Korea‘s nuclear threat into a reality. In Esteban‘s opinion, both Peking and Tokyo will oppose the nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula head on. But when the time comes to decide what measures to take against Pyongyang, the discrepancies will begin to surface.

Mario Esteban is a Doctor and Assistant Professor at the Center of East-Asian Studies at the Autónoma University of Madrid, and is a specialist of International Relations in East Asia and of the political systems of China and Taiwan. He organizes the panel of experts on East Asia of the Spanish Foreign Policy Watch Group, which is a part of the organization Fundación Alternativas (Alternatives Foundation).

THE VISITS OF PAST JAPANESE PRIME MINISTER, Junichiro Koizumi, to Yasukuni Temple greatly damaged relations between Tokyo and Peking. And so, when the election of a new prime minister took place at the end of September, it was seen as a great opportunity to revitalize the bonds between the two great powers of East Asia.

The three candidates to replace Koizumi (Shinzo Abe, Taro Aso, and Sadkazu Tanigaki) all agreed on the necessity to forge a strong relationship with China. All three had even gone so far as to plan out the details of their first state visit to China, well before the elections were decided.

The Japanese Parliament elected Shinzo Abe with a huge majority. From his first moment as new Prime Minister, Abe named among his top priorities the reconstruction of relationships with China and South Korea. But he may find that a strengthening of ties with Peking and Seoul conflicts with other issues on his agenda, such as the reform of the pacifist Japanese constitution, the implementation of a more assertive foreign policy, the strengthening of the Japanese army, and the creation of a close alliance with the United States.

These incoherencies, as well as the revisionist outlook that Abe professes with regard to Japan’s imperialist past (Abe’s grandfather was Nobusuke Kishi, a member of the Manchukuo government headed by war criminal Hideki Tojo) create a certain amount of doubt regarding the evolution of Japan’s relationships with its neighbors. Particularly significant will be whether or not Abe decides to follow in the footsteps of his predecessor and visit Yasukuni Temple.

Abe’s visit to China on the 8th and 9th of October was extremely important and very successful. Not only did he put an end to the five year period in which no Japanese Prime Minister had visited the country, but it was also the first time that a Japanese Prime Minister had picked China for his first official state visit.

The political gesture was greatly appreciated by the Chinese authorities. And since his visit, the Chinese media has not stopped reporting that the meeting between the two countries has cleared the path for a bright future between Japan and China.

Both Peking and Tokyo have taken a strong stance in opposing nuclear proliferation on the Korean peninsula. Immediately after the confirmation of a successful North Korean nuclear test, China and Japan both issued harsh, unwavering criticisms. The common rejection of a nuclear North Korea should be a positive factor in the recovery of bilateral relations between China and Japan.

But, when the time comes to decide what measures to take to confront North Korea, it’s possible that discrepancies will begin to emerge.

Japan sees itself as the objective of an eventual nuclear attack from North Korea, and is anxious, therefore, to apply Chapter VII of the charter of the United Nations. China, on the other hand, is afraid of the humanitarian and geo-strategic consequences that the destabilization of the regime in Pyongyang could have on the region. The Chinese are very much against the use of force in resolving the situation in North Korea. In their minds, diplomacy is the only option.

The North Korean challenge is the first, real test of these fragile, newly formed Sino-Japanese relations.

In this situation, the most harmful outcome would be for Japan to take advantage of the threat posed by North Korea to amend its constitution, remilitarize, and reinforce the role of its army in society, as it did before in its imperial past.

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