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The Yasukuni Shrine
The Yasukuni Shrine
Philippe Pons

TOKYO - The conflict between Japan and China over the sovereignty of the inhabited Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu in Chinese) is symptomatic of Tokyo's diplomatic weakness. In its duel with Beijing, Japan appears isolated in its claim and abandoned by its allies.

The United States announced that the islands were covered by the U.S.-Japan security treaty, but they have refused to take sides in the conflict. Together with Tokyo, Washington decided to halt a joint military exercise in order not to provoke the Chinese. The simulated invasion of an occupied island was to have taken place at the beginning of November in the Japanese Okinawan archipelago.

In Europe, the only message Japan received during the recent visit of its foreign minister Koichiro Genba to Germany, France and the U.K., was a polite request for it to resolve its differences with China "peacefully."

Although Japan was the “blue ribbon” of the advanced economies in the 1970s and 1980s, it has lost its luster. China has overtaken Japan to become the second-largest economy in the world.

However, Japan's so-called “lost decades” of the 1990s and 2000s should be reappraised. The Japanese model for scientific research and social stability is worth considering, in spite of the aging population and a growth in inequality. On the other hand, it is difficult to give such credit to Japan’s diplomacy.

Like its domestic policy, Japan's foreign policy is ambivalent and hesitant. Because of the nation’s large public debt, Japan no longer contributes as much in foreign aid, which was once a major pillar of its peaceful diplomacy. Economic stagnation is only one factor in Japan's loss of influence on the world scene. Lack of political direction is another. The deterioration of Japan's relations with China is one example of this. Historical disagreements between the two countries are nothing new, but in the past, in spite of the occasional high jinx, the problems were usually kept under control.

Subjects of disagreement were put on hold, which allowed the two countries to make headway on cooperation in their common interest as economically powerful neighbors. But this status quo was broken by the unwise visits of then Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi (2001-2006) to the Yasukuni Shrine, a sanctuary where war veterans are honored since the end of the 19th century, including seven "Class-A" war criminals condemned and executed by the international court in Tokyo after World War II. They have become de facto "heroes,” writes historian Tetsuya Takahashi in his 2005 book What is the Yasukuni problem?

Nationalist provocations

To the Chinese government, which bitterly remembers the “horrors” perpetrated by the Japanese from 1931 to 1945, these visits, which Koizumi used to rally the right wing and rebuild Japanese nationalism, were felt as provocations. The democrats who came to power in 2009 have not been able to halt the deterioration in Japan's relations with China. After the fall of Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama, who was swept out after having tried to disentangle Japan from the American strategic embrace, his successor Naoto Kan mishandled the 2010 incident in which a Chinese trawler deliberately collided with a Japanese coast guard ship off the Senkaku Islands. Kan had the captain of the boat arrested- a mistake. Tokyo was forced to free the man to appease Beijing's fury. Then, in April of this year, Shintaro Ishihara, the populist and nationalist governor of Tokyo, announced that he planned to buy the islands for the city from their private Japanese owners.

Instead of reminding the governor that foreign affairs were not part of his job description, as the Japanese ambassador to Beijing, Uichiro Niwa, did before being replaced, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda's administration, weak and timorous, decided that Japan itself would buy the islands. The immediate "damage" was thus limited, but the decision affirmed Japanese sovereignty over the islands, a subject which had been deliberately left "fuzzy" since the normalization of China-Japan relations in 1972.

China had recognized that Japan administered the islands, but understood that sovereignty was undecided. This modus vivendi was reiterated when the friendship treaty between the two countries was signed in 1978. Today Tokyo says that this was a Chinese initiative that the Japanese did not agree to, without having formally rejected it. If the governor of Tokyo, who has just resigned to found a right-wing party, wanted to start a crisis with China, he has succeeded. The administration fell into the trap. "We should never have allowed this obliteration of the efforts by several prime ministers to maintain good relations with China," declared Niwa, the former ambassador to China.

According to Ukeru Magosaki, a former diplomat and best-selling author, "politicians and public opinion think we should stand our ground with China. However, diplomacy that merely follows public opinion is often contrary to the national interest." The only bright point for the Noda administration is the regional irritation that Beijing's claims are causing among other nations in the South China Sea. But that can hardly be creditd to any measure of diplomatic subtly from Tokyo.

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