Unfreezing China-Japan Relations: Easier Said than Done?
Photo Credit: AP
By Xiaolin Duan

Unfreezing China-Japan Relations: Easier Said than Done?

Jan. 31, 2018  |     |  0 comments

Recently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reiterated Japan’s strong willingness to improve relations with China. On January 5, 2018, at Jiji Press’ New Year’s party, Abe delivered a clear message to a special guest of this event — Chinese ambassador to Japan Cheng Yonghua, who was “seated right in front” of him. Abe said: “This year marks the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and … China. I also want to make this a year that the people of both countries can recognize that the Japan-China relationship improved significantly.”


On January 22, when he delivered a policy speech to the Japanese Diet, Abe described China-Japan relations as being “inseparable,” and stated that Japan would “seek to meet the expectations of the international community by developing friendly relations with China in a stable manner.” Abe also said that he will cooperate with Beijing to promote infrastructure building in Asia, signalling Japan’s readiness to contribute its share to Beijing’s “Belt and Road Initiative.”


China responded with cautious optimism. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunyin welcomed Tokyo’s good intentions, and urged the latter to “match its words with deeds and translate the positive remarks … into concrete policies and actions.”


Also given Abe’s meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping during the APEC summit at Hanoi, and subsequently with Primer Li Keqiang in Manila, both in November 2017, analysts expect the two countries to unfreeze their bilateral relationship in 2018. As President Xi and Premier Abe said at the Hanoi meeting, the two nations will embark upon a “fresh start.”


Many factors explain Chinese and Japanese leaders’ recent rapprochement.


At the leadership level, Xi Jinping has reinforced his power status. His political influence will surely extend beyond his term. In Japan, Abe and his Liberal Democratic Party had once again won the general election in 2017. This means the political elites of both countries will have to face the reality that they have to deal with each other for a long time. It is better for them to work out a common ground earlier despite their conflict of strategic interests. In addition, strong leadership at home helps leaders build domestic consensus among the political elites and handle international crises in a rational way.


At the strategic level, US President Donald Trump’s “America First” strategy, the US’ withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and its shaky commitment to defend Japan, have pushed Abe to adjust Japan’s regional strategy. Under the shadow of former US President Barack Obama’s “Pivot to Asia,” Japan served as a pioneer in the region to counterbalance a rising China. As the US under the Trump administration tends to focus more on domestic affairs, Japan cannot afford to confront China alone. China also needs to improve its security environment by deescalating its conflict with Japan.


What’s more, both China and Japan have realized they are important players in the region and economic partners. A mini Cold War between them is economically costly and politically infeasible. As Trump has adopted a protectionist trade policy targeting major exporters to the US, including China and Japan, the two countries face increasing chances of economic and trade conflicts with the US, making their economic recovery more difficult. Under such circumstances, promoting regional economic cooperation particularly among the two countries and South Korea seems to be more urgent for them than ever before.


For instance, Japan’s economy grew 1 percent in 2017, among which its exports to China and the Asian market contributed significantly. These exports to China — mainly semiconductor production equipment and electronics — hit a new record, and Japan’s manufacturing industry is growing to a four-year high in January 2018. China’s exports in 2017, on the other hand, grew more slowly than imports, and were below the expectations of analysts, casting a shadow over its economic growth.

Tokyo needs to accept the fact that China has grown into Asia’s No. 1 economic entity and a military power that has expanded its regional influence at the expense of Japan.

However, it cannot be taken for granted that China and Japan’s frosty relations will bottom out. This is because the negative factors are equally if not more prominent than the positive ones. The situation of their maritime dispute in the East China Sea is not optimistic. A Chinese submarine allegedly entered the surrounding waters of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Beijing asked Tokyo to recognize the existence of territorial disputes but the latter refused. This deadlock seems to be unsolvable now, and there are no signs of unilateral or bilateral accommodation.


What’s more, Beijing has paid close attention to the new Japan-Australia pact, and has considered it as the announcement of the two countries’ semi-alliance. Japan’s helicopter carrier Izumo conducted naval drills with US in the South China Sea and sailed into the South China Sea along with officers from the ASEAN member-states, which went against Beijing’s will to avoid the intervention of non-claimant countries.


Historical and political issues will continue to erode the mutual trust and friendship between the two countries. China was accused of fuelling anti-Japanese sentiment, while Japan’s history textbook revisionism and its politicians’ visits to the Yasukuni Shrine arouse popular nationalistic feelings in China which have in turned pressured the Chinese government to act tough.


In my opinion, the fundamental differences between the two countries stem from their stubbornness in refusing to reposition each other.


China should shake off its entitled victim mentality when dealing with Japan. It’s true that historical revisionism is happening in Japan, and that Japan wants to revise its pacifist constitution to become a “normal” state. While Beijing has criticized the rise of militarism in Japan, this seems to be an ungrounded accusation. The Chinese media and government cannot assume that its Asian neighbors share similar concerns. On the contrary, Japan’s national image in the region is quite positive despite its war crimes during the Second World War against these countries. Rather, China is less popular particularly due to the maritime dispute and its foreign policy assertiveness. If China commits to peaceful development in the long future, it needs to reconcile with Tokyo in a smart way.


It is not smart for Japan to see China as a threat and thus to build a loose anti-China coalition in the region. The transformation of the US-Japan alliance, Tokyo’s high-profile involvement in the South China Sea disputes, its military and strategic partnerships with India and Australia, and its military build-up at home, have all alerted Beijing to the danger of Japan’s forming an anti-China coalition. Tokyo needs to accept the fact that China has grown into Asia’s No. 1 economic entity and a military power that has expanded its regional influence at the expense of Japan. China’s naval presence in the Western Pacific will continue to increase for sure; and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) may compete with the Japan-led Asian Development Bank (ADB) to meet the increase demand for infrastructure and cross-border trade routes in Asia. Considering these issues, it is better for the two countries to talk, manage their differences, and possibly look for opportunities for cooperation.


A sign of warmer China-Japan relations can be seen in the exchange of their top leaders’ visits. Abe has proposed to hold the trilateral summit between China, Japan and South Korea probably in April 2018 with Chinese Primer Li first visiting Japan. After that, Primer Abe will visit Beijing, and meanwhile has invited Chinese President Xi to Japan.


However, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s hands are tied due to the South Koreans’ dissatisfaction with the 2015 “comfort women” agreement signed with Japan. In addition, Beijing believes South Korea’s deployment of the THAAD anti-ballistic missile defence system undermines its security interests, and Moon’s visit to Beijing in December 2017 did not help the two countries get over the disagreement. All these make the trilateral summit almost mission impossible, and unfreezing China-Japan relations easier said than done.

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