Japan upholding the “path of peaceful development”? China’s complimentary criticism of Abe’s collective self-defense

Abe - Article 9 reinterpretation

On Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that his cabinet had passed a new resolution on the interpretation of Article 9 of the post-war constitution, such that the Self-Defense Forces can now be used to defend Japan’s allies. Coverage of China’s official comments on the matter has typically focused on the “concern” it expressed, but there was also a curiously timed compliment contained within the PRC’s response.

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Reported by Japanese media as a turning point in the country’s security policy with practical implications, the move to enable “collective self-defense” has drawn criticism from both left-leaning Japanese citizens and media such as the Asahi Shimbun, as well as protesters in South Korea. Seoul, for its part, stated that the application of collective self-defense on the Korean peninsula “cannot be accepted unless we request it or agree to it”.

To me, China’s official response appears notably moderate, and even somewhat conciliatory, in stark contrast with its shrill responses to much less significant Japanese actions. MFA spokesman Hong Lei declared at the ministry’s July 1 press conference that China opposed “Japan’s pursuit of its domestic political goal by deliberately making up the so-called ‘China threat’,” and demanded that Japan “respect the reasonable security concerns of its Asian neighbors and prudently handle the relevant matter.” However, the spokesman’s prepared remarks, which were reported prominently on CCTV that evening, not only refrained from direct criticism, they actually framed China’s indirect criticism in terms of a rare positive reference to Japan’s policy:

People cannot but question whether Japan is deviating from the path of peaceful development that it has been upholding since the end of WWII. (emphasis added)

In today’s press conference, July 2, Hong Lei said that China had expressed its “concern 关切” to the Japanese side over collective self-defense, but again chose words that clearly implied that China considers Japan to still be, as of the present, on “the path of peaceful development”:

We are paying attention to whether or not Japan continues on the path of peaceful development, and we hope that the Japanese side acts cautiously in the military and security domain, properly respecting regional countries’ security concerns, and not take actions that harm regional peace and stability. (emphasis added)

Given the rhetoric that has been flung around regarding certain islands and shrines, members of the Chinese public could be forgiven for being surprised at hearing their government’s official spokesman, in carefully crafted responses to a major Japanese reinterpretation of its pacifist constitution, announcing that Japan has in fact been upholding a path of peaceful development since World War II. Given that the language matches exactly China’s description of its own approach, this formulation probably wouldn’t have been used lightly.

There have, however, been other signs of improvement in bilateral ties recently that might explain the otherwise odd timing of this generous PRC assessment of the Japanese policy status quo. Aside from the reduction in Chinese coast guard patrols around the disputed Diaoyu Islands, in May and June CCP Politburo Standing Committee members Zhang Dejiang and Yu Zhengsheng both met with Japanese delegations. Taking a closer look, there are reasons to believe the above-mentioned responses to Japan’s collective self-defense move could be intended to signal an intention to continue pursuing this recent warming trend.

First, some quick searches on Baidu & Google suggest the “upholding” element of Hong Lei’s first remark was indeed new. Moreover, it is even stronger in the Chinese version: 长期坚持的和平发展道路, meaning literally “the path of peaceful development that it upheld over a long period”.[1] Previous MFA comments over the past year or two have often expressed that China hopes, urges, or requires Japan to take the path of peaceful development, but without referring to whether or not Japan has already been doing this. For example:

  • December 26, 2012. Hua Chunying, regarding possible Japanese constitutional amendments: “At the same time, we follow closely which direction Japan will take and hope that Japan would follow the path of peaceful development and play a constructive role for regional peace and stability 希望日本走和平发展道路.”
  • January 10, 2013. Hong Lei, on Japan’s increasing defense budget: “We hope Japan could draw lessons from history and follow (走) the path of peaceful development.”
  • September 27, 2013. Hong Lei, in response to Japanese FM Kishida’s comments at the UN on nuclear transparency: “We require the Japanese side to reflect on and draw lessons from history, pursue a path of peaceful development and make more efforts to promote political and security mutual trust as well as peace and stability in the region.”
  • October 29, 2013. Hua Chunying, answering claims that China’s Diaoyu patrols are a threat to peace: “We hope that Japan could earnestly reflect on history, follow the path of peaceful development, stop making empty talks and take concrete actions to safeguard regional peace and stability.”
  • January 21 & January 29, 2014. Hong Lei & Hua Chunying, regarding constitutional revision: “We urge the Japanese side to deeply reflect upon the history of aggression and pursue (走) a path of peaceful development.”
  • February 17, 2014. Hua Chunying, regarding nuclear weapons in Japan: “Observing the three non-nuclear principles is one of the important signs of Japan’s post-war path of peaceful development.”
  • February 25, 2014. Hua Chunying, on Japan relaxing controls on arms exports: “We hope that the Japanese side could draw hard lessons from history, take its Asian neighbors’ security concerns seriously, accord with the trend of times, pursue a path of peaceful development and do more for regional peace and stability.”
  • February 26, 2014. Hua Chunying, on ‘Abenomics’: “They also expose Japan’s dangerous agenda forward, namely, intransigent pursuit of a counter-China policy and an attempt to change its post-war path of peaceful development.”
  • April 23, 2014. Qin Gang, on President Obama’s statement that the Diaoyu Islands were under Japanese administration: “As for the Japanese side, we hope they can follow the trend of the times, featuring win-win cooperation, and show us with their concrete actions that they are still on the path of peaceful development 以实际行动切实坚持走和平发展道路.”

Although the February 17 and February 26 examples implied the existence of Japanese post-war path of peaceful development, they did not state that it has been “upholding” this over a “long period”. The closest any of them comes is the Qin Gang’s April 23 remark, the Chinese version of which uses the word “uphold 坚持”, albeit in conjunction with “we hope”. In fact, based on this incomplete list (plus my browsing of further results), it appears that the insinuations that Japan is on a peaceful development path may have been gradually becoming stronger this year.

Second, the MFA’s response to collective self-defense also contrasted with the remarks earlier in 2014 by not stating that Japan was attempting to change its peaceful development path as a matter of fact, but instead questioning whether Japan was changing its peaceful development path. Again, the Chinese version is actually more emphatic: 是否, meaning “whether or not”. If collective self-defense is, as many claim, a more fundamental adjustment to Japan’s security policy than any of the previous examples, then logically it should have been be the strongest confirmation yet that Japan is indeed “changing its post-war path of peaceful development”. Instead, the PRC has reverted to expressing uncertainty on this question.

Third, the PRC response contained other elements that may suggest it was intended to signal China’s commitment to continuing with the inchoate rebuilding of bilateral ties. It stated that China had “noted that there are strong objections in Japan to the lifting of the ban on the collective self defence right.” Likewise, CCTV’s 7pm news bulletin broadcast footage of protests and opinion poll graphs vividly depicting domestic Japanese opposition to the move, thus focusing the public’s attention on the existence of more friendly elements within Japanese society, as it has done previously when seeking to stabilize relations.

The MFA spokesman declared in his July 1 remarks, “It is the general public of Japan that should have the final say on which way Japan should follow in terms of national development.” This acknowledgement of the legitimacy of Japanese public opinion — as opposed to something manipulated by extreme right-wingers — also may imply some confidence on the part of the PRC leadership that the underlying basis for stable Sino-Japanese ties still exists.

We’ll have to wait and see whether any of this ends up leading towards conciliation or restraint in practical terms, but i think it’s worth noting just how moderate China’s response to Japan’s collective self defense policy has been, at least so far.

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[1] It might be possible to read the sentence as referring to a “path of peaceful development” that Japan previously upheld over a long period of time, but if this was the intended meaning it could easily have been made clear with 此前 or 以前 or 过去. Additionally, the official English translation’s used the present continuous tense (“has been upholding”), and the spokesman’s use of “continue 继续” the following day, appears to confirm this was the intended reading.



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