Sino-Japanese relations: The ice that won't melt

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					Linus Hagström

The ice that won’t melt

The 2008 commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the peace and
friendship treaty between Japan and the People’s Republic of China
coincided with much optimism about the healthy development and
prosperous future of this bilateral relationship. Observers around the globe
are welcoming the end to the frosty relations that existed under former
Japanese Prime Minister Jun’ichiro Koizumi (2001–06), while news articles
and reports tend to reproduce the official line that the “ice” between the
countries has been “breaking” and “melting,” and that the relationship is
now experiencing a period of “spring.”
     The recent signs of détente in Sino-Japanese relations should indeed be
welcomed, but this should not amount to turning a blind eye to the
substantial problems that remain unsolved—problems that could, moreover,
be repoliticized by nationalist forces in both countries. Continuing with the

Linus Hagström is senior research fellow at the Swedish Institute of International Affairs,
and research fellow at the Royal Swedish Academy of Letters, History and Antiquities. He
wishes to thank Johan Lagerkvist for being a sounding board for many of the ideas developed
in this article, and the many interviewees who shared their views and expertise generously.
A grant from the Swedish Research Council made this research possible.

                                        | International Journal | Winter 2008-09 | 223 |
| Linus Hagström |

officially sanctioned ice metaphor, one could argue that the present breaking
and melting are only occurring at the tip of the iceberg, most of which is
yethidden under water. It is still highly uncertain that the current spring will
be succeeded by summer; the risk of a sudden relapse to what may be likened
to autumn, or perhaps even winter, is considerable.
     Based mostly on recent interviews with Japanese decision-makers and
academics, this article aims to unsettle the idea that Sino-Japanese relations
are nearing stability. As one Japanese informant stated, very succinctly, “[t]he
official view of Japan’s relationship with China…is almost so good it is scary.
The leaders talk about the breaking and melting of ice but it is almost as if
they are throwing hot water on the ice. The gap between the earlier tension
and present positive statements is all too big.”1

With Koizumi’s ascent to power in April 2001, mistrust and mutual
apprehension on both sides of the E
Description: Although the interdependence between Japan and China is growing each year, one could argue that it is not at all a new phenomenon. Even so, everincreasing integration for some 30 years has not prevented a number of issues from repeatedly affecting the two countries' relationship. Despite the current rhetoric of "ice breaking," "ice melting," and "spring," none of these issues has in fact been settled. They make up the bulk of an iceberg, which is just now hidden under the water but could reappear under suboptimal circumstances. Summitry so far has produced mainly symbolic gestures and joint documents replete with vague expressions that both parties can "buy." That the bilateral relationship is currently "good" hence only means that no additional problems are emerging. It is necessary to question how far the relationship can develop in the long term if the countries do not find ways to settle these problems.While some observers now believe that the risk of overt conflict over the islands is negligible, Unryu Suganuma, a noted expert on the dispute, has pointed out that "if there is a flash point to ignite a third Sino-Japanese war, it will be the ownership ofthe Diaoyu Islands." A defence analyst at the Japanese Ministry of Defence, however, thinks it is rather unrealistic to believe that China would try to take the "Senkaku Islands" by force. A more realistic scenario, in his opinion, is that of a large number of Chinese fishermen again being sent there and Beijing then alleging humanitarian reasons for dispatching naval ships.17 A recent incident, in December 2008, when Chinese survey ships patrolled the disputed area for some nine hours despite warnings to leave by the Japanese coast guard, might also indicate a subtle shift in the Chinese stance. Where Beijing has in the past referred to the area as "disputed," and the dispute as "shelved," this time a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was quoted as saying that "China has carried out normal patrol activities in
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