Reflecting on the Senkaku Boat Collision Incident
– Almost a year and a half have passed since you were appointed as the ambassador to China in July 2010, the first ambassador from the private sector since the end of World War II. During this period, a series of critical issues took place, including the collision of a Chinese trawler with Japanese Coast Guard patrol boats near the Senkaku Islands; the detention of Japanese construction company employees in China; and the suspension of rare earth mineral exports to Japan. How do you look back on this time?
Niwa: Even when I was working in the private sector, I always believed that challenges are what make people grow. Once you accept an inconvenient situation as the norm, there will be no more inconvenient situations. I would be lying if I said that I have no sleepless nights, but my duty as an ambassador is to do my best for both the nation and its people. Fortunately, the embassy staff in Beijing are very competent. I am often asked to compare the staff to that of a private company, and my answer is that I see no difference. Still, while I stress how capable these Foreign Ministry bureaucrats are, the Japanese media wouldn’t report about them [laughter].
– The Senkaku boat collision and the Chinese Foreign Ministry’s decision to summon you hurt the pride of many Japanese people. There were some hardline views stating that you should be recalled to Japan.
Niwa: Some people criticized me because they thought I was just blindly meeting with the Chinese Foreign Ministry. I wouldn’t have gone if the problem could have been resolved without my visits. But what if Japan-China relations worsened; who in the Japanese government would take the blame? I had no choice but to go. I decided to go to the ministry to endure the unendurable and suffer the insufferable. A quote by Yamamoto Isoroku, a Japanese Naval Marshal General during World War II, perfectly illustrates my state of mind at the time: “There are times when you suffer, get angry, and even want to cry. But bearing these emotions is training to become a real man.”
– On the other hand, in the wake of the Great East Japan Earthquake on March 11, 2012, President Hu Jintao visited the Japanese embassy in Beijing to extend his condolences to the victims of the earthquake. What kind of sentiment do you think prompted the visit?
Niwa: It was the first time for a Chinese president to visit a Japanese embassy. The president’s visit represented the voice of the Chinese people expressing their sympathy for Japan’s suffering from the unprecedented disaster and offering their condolences to the victims of the disaster. In the same manner, the Japanese people helped China back when it was hit by a massive earthquake in the Sichuan Province. China is a very honorable and grateful country, so it did not forget what Japan did for China.
-Are you saying that China is not just a mammonist country?
Niwa: Yes, I am. The spirit of Confucianism still remains in China. However, when the economy is booming, even if China is not acting self-important, the world probably sees China acting that way. Japan once experienced the same thing. It is important for us to remember that the bigger the country, the more humble it should be. As they say: “The boughs that bear most hang lowest.” If the Chinese people take on this attitude, things will probably move more smoothly.
– Despite China’s condolences to Japan after the March 11 earthquake in August 2011 and as if taking advantage of the political turmoil in Japan during the Democratic Party of Japan’s presidential election, two Chinese patrol boats once again entered Japanese waters off the Senkaku Islands. This incident prompted you to visit the Chinese Foreign Ministry and condemn the incident. How do you think we should deal with China’s dual personality?
Niwa: We have no intention to flatter China at all. In fact, the Chinese often despise and distrust people who always smile and act obsequiously. This is why I stated at the time that “the two countries agree on a policy of deepening their strategic partnership of mutual benefit. An act like this runs counters to the agreement made by the leaders of the two countries of deepening the strategic partnership of mutual benefit. We request that an incident like this would never take place again in the future.” I did so because it is only natural for an ambassador to speak up to protect the national interest.
However, one thing I would like Japan to know is that China is the world’s most advanced bureaucratic state. Japan’s bureaucratic system does not even come close to that of China. The disadvantage here is that each division and organization in China is managed vertically, with an absence of horizontal cooperation across divisions and organizations. There isn’t much in the way of information sharing. So an answer like, “Sorry, is that so?” from the Chinese Foreign Ministry in response to our objection may have been typical.
And it’s not like they can own up and say, “We didn’t know,” when asked to comment on bilateral relations, so they end up saying: “We will examine the matter immediately.” I think Japan also responds to issues by initially saying: “We will examine the matter.” The point here is that China’s bureaucracy has more divisions than Japan’s has. So an argument begins when one division brings up a certain policy and another that has a vested interest argues that the policy is not reasonable. In certain cases, there’s a need to obtain approval from local governments. As a result, China’s official view can change several times. This creates a sense of distrust in the Chinese people among the Japanese. So we need to remember that China is the world’s most advanced bureaucratic state.
If China’s actions harm Japan’s national interest, Japan must clearly show that it will not compromise. I reiterate that if Japan takes this stance, China will eventually start to trust us to a certain extent.
– Following the death of Kim Jong-il on December 19, 2011, a new regime is now in place in North Korea under Kim Jong-un, the third son of Kim Jong-il. There are views that China will rapidly increase its influence over North Korea. What are your thoughts?
Niwa: At the Japan-China summit held at the end of 2011, Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda discussed the effects of the death of the Chairman of the National Defense Commission Kim Jong-il. At this summit, the two countries agreed that they share a common interest in securing peace and stability in the Korea Peninsula. This understanding is obvious in that instability in North Korea would greatly affect Japan, South Korea and China. In particular, China’s border with North Korea spans 1,300 km, with 2 million Korean people living in China.
– Do you think China will encourage North Korea to introduce a market economy in the future?
Niwa: I think so. Ultimately, the only way for North Korea to achieve stability is to achieve economic growth and let its people prosper. So I believe that China will extend as much support as possible to North Korea because it will be beneficial for China. Meanwhile, Japan should call on China to cooperate on issues related to North Korea, including the abduction issue. Realistically, Japan alone doesn’t have enough clout to influence North Korea.
– An issue somewhat related to the Senkaku island dispute is the global concerns about how far China will expand its territories. Ma Ying-jeou of the Chinese Nationalist Party in Taiwan was reelected as president in the election held on January 14, 2012. His policies are said to be pro-China. Consequently, some say that China will devour Taiwan. For this reason only, China’s ever-rising arms spending presents nothing but a threat to Japan.
Niwa: When Japan was growing rapidly with the introduction of capitalism during the Meiji era, its arms spending was also on the rise. It’s natural for defense spending to increase along with economic growth. The problem with China, however, is that the details of its defense spending and the modernization of its military are unclear.
Of course, no country fully discloses the details of its defense budget. Still, China needs to disclose a certain amount of information to avoid heightened concerns or anxiety among other countries. Both Japan and the United States are concerned about China’s defense spending being kept under a veil of secrecy. Since China has now become the world’s second largest economy, it is natural for China to ensure that its neighboring countries are not worried about its activities.
– In 2011, China’s aircraft carrier Varyag embarked on its maiden voyage. This event served as a symbol of China’s oceanic ambitions, and created a significant sense of crisis in Japan.
Niwa: China has declared that an aircraft carrier is also a part of its self-defense system. But both Japan and South Korea are concerned that the carrier may not be for self-defense only. This would prompt calls for both Japan and South Korea to increase their defense spending.
– That’s right. We’ve recently started to hear calls for Japan to strengthen its Self-Defense Forces.
Niwa: We need to request China to improve the transparency of its defense spending and monitor its progress. While doing so, we need to work on deepening our relations between the two countries to eliminate mutual distrust. At the end of 2011, the Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force destroyer Kirisame made a port call for the first time in Qingdao, the base for the Chinese Navy’s North Sea Fleet. I visited the port and watched a joint exercise involving Japanese and Chinese vessels. I believe that the two countries should increase the number of exchanges like this and promote active communication among field defense officers in the future.
– Moving onto economic issues, since the second half of last year and into this year, a number of reports have covered the possibility of an imminent collapse of China’s bubble economy. What are your projections for the Chinese economy?
Niwa: The Japanese media like pessimistic views. [laughter]. Well, it may be true that China won’t be able to achieve close to 10% growth as it has done so far. In fact, growth in 2011 slowed to 9.2%. Some see China’s growth at 8.9% in 2012. The infrastructure in places like Shanghai and Hong Kong located along the coast has already been fully developed. As a result, infrastructure development is now moving inland. Many cranes are visible and infrastructure is being developed in these areas. So China’s economic growth has yet to stop, but will likely slow somewhat because the population in the inland areas is noticeably sparse compared with cities along the coast.
– What do you think about the economic disparity in China? Riots have supposedly erupted.
Niwa: There were in fact 2,000 labor disputes taking place every year in Japan in the second half of the 1960s through the 1970s. At the same time, under the income-doubling plan, employees’ incomes at companies both large and small were growing between 15% and 20% every year. This annual increase in income became the source of domestic spending, resulting in stronger domestic demand. China has just now entered this period.
– So do you think that China will successfully transform its economy from one driven by infrastructure investments and exports to that led by domestic demand?
Niwa: Yes, I think so. China has such a huge population and population is a huge asset for a country. Having said that, a large population could also cause a variety of problems. One such problem is an aging society and another is related to education. How did Japan achieve economic growth after World War II? In short, it was because Japan successfully provided education to the middle class. That then became a foundation for high-quality manufacturing. To improve the level of manufacturing, in addition to other specific reasons, China needs to bolster the quality of education in the future. If China continues to produce only imitations to achieve selfish gains or focuses on prices alone, the Chinese economy will undoubtedly falter sooner or later.
Can we assume that China will successfully achieve a soft landing in the short term?
Niwa: What I want people to focus on is which country will feel the brunt of a Chinese economic collapse. It will be Japan for sure. China is Japan’s largest trading partner. If China were to collapse, Japan would desperately try to support it. I believe that there is nothing more wasteful than discussing the theory of the collapse of the Chinese economy. It will not only bring down the Japanese economy, but also force the global economy into turmoil. Do you want to see this happen?
– In China, a certain group of people reportedly believe that the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) free trade agreement is part of Japan and the US’s strategy to contain China. What are your thoughts?
Niwa: The TPP will not be complete without the participation of China in the future. Now that China’s presence in global trade has become significant, what kind of a trade zone would the United States be aiming to develop if it did not include China? It is a waste of time to have such a worthless discussion.
In fact, if custom duties are removed, a number of Chinese companies will lose competitiveness and go bankrupt. That is why China is now on the sidelines. Still, if China is not a TPP member in ten years’ time, the TPP will be a failure. By then, I think it’s possible that China will have become the world’s largest country even based on gross domestic product (GDP).
While discussing the TPP, Japan should also work on concluding a trilateral free trade agreement with China and South Korea as soon as possible. I recently looked into it again, but the trade volume of China, the world’s second largest economy, and that of Japan, the third largest economy, total 4,450 billion US dollars. This figure exceeds 3,200 US dollars for the United States. This shows that Chinese economic growth creates the greatest opportunity for Japan. As such, Japan, China and South Korea are now working to swiftly conclude an agreement to sign an investment treaty.
– From your point of view, do you think Japanese companies are slow in developing operations in China?
Niwa: Yes, but there are some compelling reasons why they cannot fully enter the Chinese market. They are worried that their technologies that they have developed at a cost of billions of yen will be stolen or copied. In addition to these concerns, there are regulations that prohibit Japanese companies from establishing wholly owned subsidiaries in China. To improve the investment environment of Japanese companies, Japan must urgently conclude a trilateral investment treaty with China and South Korea. Once this treaty sets the stage for an improved environment for corporate investment, a large number of Japanese companies are expected to rush into the Chinese market.
– At the beginning of this interview, you likened your actions to those of Isoroku Yamamoto’s. How do you think Japanese people should communicate with China?
Niwa: I recommend that Japanese people just show their true selves to the Chinese people. When I arrived in China as the ambassador, I was fed up with seeing films and dramas about the Japanese army’s crimes in China everywhere. Japanese soldiers wearing service caps are always on TV in Chinese drama. So I consciously made an effort to visit a number of places to meet various people in China. In this way, they will realize that Japanese are very gentle and kind.
In this context, I appreciate the efforts made by the young Japanese members of the Japan Overseas Cooperation Volunteers and senior volunteers of the Japan International Cooperation (JICA). They go to regional areas in China where Japanese normally do not go and leave behind a very positive impression of Japan with the locals.
– We often hear that when Chinese people visit Tokyo, they are surprised by the kindness of the Japanese people and to see that Tokyo is a safe place.
Niwa: I had an opportunity to meet a person in Guangxi Province who had studied in Japan. During our conversation, he asked me why the Japanese are into reporting negative things about the Chinese people. Now, this is what I would ask these Japanese people: “What are you trying to achieve by doing this?” I suspect that these people are just looking to satisfy their ego by talking badly about the Chinese people.
– What do you expect from Japanese politicians?
Niwa: From the perspective of building a long-term relationship with China, I am very disappointed at the current situation in which Japan’s prime minister and the Cabinet are frequently changing. This is why, during his visit to China at the end of 201,1 I asked Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda to stay in office for at least two to three years. I think Prime Minister Noda left an impression of being trustworthy with the Chinese people. I often tell people that regardless of who becomes the prime minister, there will be no concerns over Japan-China relations.
– How can you be so sure? What do you think will happen to the Senkaku Islands issue?
Niwa: Quoting the late Premier Zhou Enlai, the only way to go for Japan and China relations is to remember that peace would lead to prosperity and war would end up in suffering. Some people say if going up against China is the way to go, just go all the way. What does this mean? Do they mean Japan should prepare for a military clash with China? We cannot senselessly fight like primary school or junior high school students. I warn that if the world’s second and third largest economies end up in a fight, we will only leave a great burden and harm our children. It would be the mistake of the century, no, of a thousand years. This also applies to China. If they fight with Japan, they would be isolated from the international community. At least as long as I am in office as the Ambassador to China, I will never let such a foolish thing happen.
As Yamamoto Isoroku said, there will be incidents that will provoke anger. However, we must drop our egos in the interests of the nation. This is exactly what Saigo Takamori, a military and political leader of the late Edo and early Meiji eras, said: that there is no-one else in the world more difficult to handle than those who do not value their own lives, do not want fame or to obtain an official rank or make money. However, he said that without these difficult people, we cannot achieve the nation’s “grand work.” At my age, I honestly do not need the fame, the position nor the money. I am now only thinking about doing everything I can at all costs to devote myself to deepening the friendship between Japan and China.
Translated from “Nicchu no shototsu wa karada wo hatte soshisuru (Avoid a Clash between Japan and China at All Costs),” Voice, March 2012, pp. 44-51. (Courtesy of PHP Kenkyusho)