China’s reaction to the Abe Statement – a sign of things to come?

Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe

Anniversaries matter in the context of East Asian international relations and the historical difficulties that the major powers of the region are till yet to overcome. In particular, China’s relationship with Japan is marked by a number of important dates that all bring with them the possibility of either steps toward reconciliation or further antagonism. With 2015 marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II – and therefore of the end of the Second Sino-Japanese War and Japan’s brutal, bloody occupation of much of China – all eyes were on Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on August 14th as he made a speech to mark the date that Japan announced it would be surrendering to the Allies in 1945 (which was actually the following day).

Abe’s speech would always be measured against the ‘gold standard’ of Japanese apologies, that made by former Prime Minister Murayama on the 50th anniversary in 1995. Murayama’s expressions of “deep remorse” and “heartfelt apology” were echoed ten years later by Junichiro Koizumi despite his own apparent provocations of China over the history issue. Abe’s statement – the result of months of internal wrangling and negotiation between factions of his own Liberal Democratic Party as well as coalition partners New Komeito – was impressively nuanced. He succeeded in ticking enough boxes to appear to reiterate Japan’s apologies without actually re-articulating them directly, providing Abe with space to appease elements of both his domestic and international audiences.

Abe’s declaration that “Japan has repeatedly expressed the feelings of deep remorse and heartfelt apology for its actions during the war” was aimed at referencing the all-important Murayama statement whilst allowing the right-wing domestic audience not to view it as another apology. This was further reinforced with the statement that Japan “must not let our children, grandchildren, and even further generations to come, who have nothing to do with that war, be predestined to apologize.”

Prior to the statement’s release, China seemed in the mood not so much for compromise but at least for avoiding further provocation. This was never going to be a watershed moment in Sino-Japanese reconciliation, but it did offer room for the Chinese leadership to accept Abe’s words as maintaining the previously understood position over history. Despite the increased tensions between the two countries in recent years, particularly over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, there were signs that China’s leadership had been seeking something of a thaw.

The response from China was critical in tone. Hua Chunying, a spokesperson from the Foreign Ministry, stated that “Japan should have made an explicit statement on the nature of the war of militarism and aggression and its responsibility on the wars, made sincere apology to the people of victim countries, and made a clean break with the past of militarist aggression, rather than being evasive on this major issue of principle”.

The suggestion that Japan has not gone far enough should come as no surprise. Abe’s statement was no Willy Brandt or Richard Nixon moment. Nevertheless, it was striking that China’s criticism did not go further. China’s opinion of Abe is not high. His visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 along with his generally hawkish stance on historical matters have prevented him from seeking anything resembling a positive relationship with Xi Jinping. The two did not meet for the first two years of Abe’s premiership and when they finally did, the handshake was so awkward that it sparked comic comparisons to Winnie the Pooh. Against this backdrop, and with the ambiguity of Abe’s statement, the opportunity for China to respond with wholehearted condemnation was certainly open. That it did not take this chance may be a positive sign for the short-term future of Sino-Japanese relations.

China certainly has plenty on its plate domestically at the moment. The catastrophic chemical plant explosion in Tianjin has grabbed plenty of headlines, though it is likely that the blame for this will be placed on local officials rather than fingers being pointed at the central government. The biggest concern for the CCP right now is the stock market, which continues to plunge, wiping out small investors’ savings and confidence alike. It’s possible that China simply doesn’t want to pick a fight with one its most important economic partners at this time.

All will become clearer at the next important anniversary, on September 3rd when China marks the formal end of World War II (Japan’s formal surrender occurred on September 2nd, making the following day the first that China was no longer occupied). Beijing will host a huge military parade to mark the occasion this year with guests to include Vladimir Putin. The litmus test will be if Abe accepts his own invitation – and rumours in Tokyo suggest that he will – providing him with an opportunity for a much more visibly symbolic gesture to appease his Chinese hosts.