A View from China

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo’s Beijing tour in October of 2018 went well. It is not just the first time a Japanese prime minister has returned to Beijing in 8 years. The significance is that after years of lingering tensions over the Diaoyu/Senkaku territorial fracture, the two sides are ultimately and realistically seeking a new phase of improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. The recent two years have been special in the timeline of these relations – 2017 was the 45th anniversary of Sino-Japanese normalization of diplomatic relations, and this year is the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Along with marking these two memorable events, several signals of reconciliation have appeared, especially after mid-2017. Positive interactions, including increasing high-level reciprocal visits, expanding dialogue at different levels, and more actively communicating in various fields, reflect a benign tendency in Sino-Japanese relations. To people concerned about the prospects of the relationship, it is necessary to understand the motivations behind the recent reconciliation from both Chinese and Japanese perspectives. How long can such a warming-up proceed? To what extent will this bilateral relationship be improved? Historical problems, territorial disputes, strategic considerations, and many other significant issues have always been barriers between these two countries, keeping them from reaching a sincere and comprehensive reconciliation. Although a variety of indications boost the confidence of both sides, China-Japan relations in the future still need to be prudently considered and treated.

Is the Trump administration pulling Beijing and Tokyo closer?

Abe and his counterpart Premier Li Keqiang co-sponsored the conference on the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan Peace and Friendship Agreement. Both highlighted the spirit of agreement—no more threats or war intimidation and a reinforced pledge of permanent peace and hospitality. Xi’s meeting with Abe gave the impression that they were not as relaxed as in the Li-Abe meeting; however, Xi strongly expressed his desire for a redirection of China-Japan relations for regional and global common goods. Xi intentionally dodged the “history problem,” and instead focused on the current peril – Trump’s trade war and his disregard of the WTO. Obviously, there are differing interpretations from both countries’ media on how to assess the real gains of Abe’s visit. But at last, the “new journey” of Sino-Japan ties has been launched, as Abe stated in the concluding speech of his visit along with Li Keqiang in Beijing on October 25, 2018.

From the start of the second half of 2017, top-level contacts between China and Japan had gradually become more frequent and positive, sending signals from both sides to ease tensions and mend relations. On July 8, 2017, Abe held a meeting with Xi Jinping at the G20 summit in Hamburg, Germany. Although the two did not achieve any substantial agreement on issues of concern, Abe clearly expressed his wish to “move ahead with building a new relationship between Japan and China.”1 To celebrate the 45th anniversary of diplomatic normalization, China and Japan held a series of activities in September. When Beijing held a ceremony to commemorate the anniversary, several Japanese politicians and former government members attended.2 On September 28, Abe, accompanied by Foreign Minister Kono Taro, surprisingly attended the Chinese embassy’s ceremony in Tokyo for the upcoming Chinese National Day and the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic relations. It was the first time in 15 years that a Japanese prime minister had attended this annual event, and it was also the first time for Abe to attend as the prime minister of Japan. According to The Asahi Shimbun, the two Japanese leaders conveyed enthusiasm for promoting cooperation and improving bilateral relations with China.3 Abe also suggested top-level reciprocal visits of Japanese and Chinese leaders. In addition, Abe and Li Keqiang exchanged congratulatory messages via telegraph.4 On May 9, 2018, Li attended the CJK summit in Tokyo, which primarily focused on the political and strategic dynamics on the Korean Peninsula, with Abe and South Korea’s president Moon Jae-in.5 This trilateral meeting showed Japan’s determination to resume cooperation with its two Asian neighbors on the North Korea issue. The positive top-level interactions between Japan and China reached a peak with Abe’s visit to China in October 2018.

China and Japan revealed their intention to coordinate in various fields. Economic development and trade have always been the priority in China-Japan cooperation. As the second and third biggest economies in the world, they have deep economic ties and are highly interdependent. Japan’s recent interest in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and the Belt and Road Initiative indicated that further economic cooperation with China is sought. Beijing not only eagerly participates in the negotiation progress of RCEP, but also is the initiator and organizer of the BRI project. On May 15, 2017, Secretary-General of the Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Nikai Toshihiro attended the BRI Forum for International Cooperation (BRF) in Beijing on behalf of his government. Three weeks later Abe declared that Japan was “ready to extend cooperation” with China’s BRI. Tokyo’s statements marked a turning point in Japan’s policy towards China, suggesting the prospect of cooperation on regional economic development.

In addition to traditional issues like economics, there are signs of China-Japan cooperation on security. The changing situation on the Korean Peninsula, especially the thawing of DPRK-ROK and DPRK-US relations, raised the possibility of denuclearization and provided Japan an opportunity to negotiate with North Korea for its abducted civilians. Japan emphasized the importance of cooperation with China and South Korea to resolve the North Korea missile and nuclear issues on several occasions and actively facilitated related trilateral meetings. Moreover, according to opinion polls, favorability and positive expectations about each other increased in both countries. All of these signals show that the China-Japan relationship is warming up.

The motivations behind this phenomenon are greatly influenced by both internal and external factors. Domestic politics in Japan affect Abe’s attitudes towards China. Before September 20, 2018, Abe needed to prepare for his intra-party re-election. The presidential election of the LDP was vital to Abe’s political blueprint. If he could win the election, he could remain in power until 2021 and focus on how to pursue his vision of Japan.6 He would gain more time to realize his ambitious “Abenomics” growth plan and take steps towards constitutional amendments. In previous terms, Abe’s diplomatic achievements were limited, but the recent improvement of diplomatic relations with neighboring countries, especially China, helped him earn extra points in the election. The Abe administration faces pressure for economic revival. The economic complementarity of Japan and China’s economy has not changed. However, in China, politics and economics are tightly integrated.7 If Japanese firms are looking for a stable business environment in China, improving political relations with China is necessary. 

The Chinese and Japanese people, alienated for years, need time to heal their contending views of each other. Abe’s visit to China on October 25-27 drew a lot of interest from the Chinese people as well as international media. Public opinion in China remains blatantly divergent on how to respond to his visit. Most people are quite unsure of the real motives of Beijing’s policy shift –Abe was declared unwelcome back in 2012, and now he is well-received. Of course, Chinese tends to separate their image of Abe from their aspirations for Japan – the contrast is well demonstrated by the skyrocketing growth of Chinese tourism to Japan in recent years. But the irony is that Abe’s public image does not match Chinese tourist enthusiasm. It is a barrier the Chinese should overcome before a real “new journey” sets off.

Diplomatic pragmatism comes back?

The changing international situation also impacts the Abe administration’s policy. The US withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Trump administration’s trade protectionism create more difficulties for Japan to extend its overseas markets. Under the “America first” idea, the US government implements a stricter trade policy toward Japan, including raising tariffs and opening Japan’s market for agricultural and animal products. These actions will sharply increase the burdens and lower the profits of Japanese companies. Rounds of negotiations did not produce any desired results; thus under the pressure of a less optimistic trade environment, Japan needs to adjust its policy. Due to the uncertainty from the Trump administration, Abe needs more market access and trade partners to ensure Japan’s economic benefits. China’s BRI links economic belts from East Asia to Europe, covering Southeast Asia, Central Asia, and the Mediterranean area etc., which have potential to offer rich resources, wide markets, and abundant business opportunities. RCEP is viewed as an alternative to TPP, calling for trade liberalization in Asia.8 These two platforms can provide a chance for Japan to pursue some economic goals and motivate its companies to seek business opportunities. Strategically, Abe’s vision of constructing Japan as an influential great power demands that Japan improve its foreign relations with other Asian countries, among which, China is undoubtedly important. From the security perspective, the new developments on the Korean Peninsula encourage Japan to participate in negotiations again. Although Japan and China remain in competition over security, on the North Korean issue, it is necessary for Japan to approach China.

It seems that the Japanese side expresses stronger amity, but the Chinese side also wants to enhance relations with Japan. The geopolitical landscape in East Asia has changed, and this dynamic urges Beijing to reconsider its relations with neighboring countries. The long-running feud with Japan costs too much and adds “unnecessary uncertainty to their region’s security.”9 From the northeastern border, which adjoins the Korean Peninsula, to the South China Sea, China’s eastern national boundaries are recently far from peaceful. The North Korean nuclear issue has always been a powder keg that can trigger conflict at any time; the territorial disputes with Japan on the Senkaku/Diaoyu island still have no solution and even foment enmity between China and Japan; the contentions over disputed maritime territory in the South China Sea among China and several Southeast Asian states have continued for years. Japan is involved in all these territorial disputes and security issues. On the path of modernization and globalization, China needs a peaceful international environment for development. Especially in Asia, good relations with its neighbors can benefit China’s economic development, as well as help shape a benign image as a great power. Due to historical problems, territorial disputes, strategic rivalry, and geopolitical considerations, China and Japan have faced security tensions for a long time. To smooth relations with Japan could ease regional tensions and enhance conflict management.

Compared with Japan’s tough trade negotiations with the United States, the trade dispute with the United States poses a more difficult challenge to China. China is troubled by the trade war launched by the Trump administration, which has escalated as additional tariffs were imposed on Chinese goods. Now the two biggest economies in the world are in a deadlock of tit-for-tat tariff retaliation. Under the pressure of Trump’s trade war, China’s economic development encounters an obvious deceleration of growth. At this moment, China needs more friends instead of opponents to deal with this challenge. Minister of Commerce Zhong Shan’s signed article in Renmin Ribao criticizes Trump’s “unilateralism and protectionism” and supports multilateral and regional mechanisms to play a bigger role in economic globalization.10 In recent years, China has focused on promoting regional economic cooperation and integration. The BRI and RCEP, as two major China-backed regional economic projects, are based on this conception. After the escalation of trade conflicts with the United States, China also imperatively needs alternatives to support overseas market demand. If Japan, as a powerful and influential economy in Asia, can be a cooperative partner rather than a competitor, China’s blueprint of building a regional economic circle and mechanism will gain more energy. No matter for economic development or regional stability, improving relations with Japan is highly beneficial to China.

Since the start of reconciliation, both sides have had a cautious attitude. Although Trump’s trade war pushes China and Japan to cooperate, strategic conflicts and some essential divergences remain the crux of Sino-Japanese relations. Territorial disputes, strategic confrontation caused by China’s rise, and different values and perceptions of the leaderships in the two countries may impede a fundamental improvement of bilateral relations. The Senkaku/Diaoyu islands controversy cannot be avoided when considering China-Japan relations. Both Beijing and Tokyo declare that this island and its surrounding waters are their territory. The Chinese navy and air force and the Japanese Self-Defense Forces confront each other in this area, often creating tensions and leading to the rise of nationalism in two countries. Since Japan’s nationalization of the Senkaku islands, this issue has caused a deterioration of China-Japan relations. In addition, as the United States has reaffirmed that its commitment to the defense treaty with Japan extends to the Senkaku islands, this territorial issue has been raised to a strategic level, involving the reinforcement of the US-Japan alliance in Asia.11 China is always discomforted by the US-led alliances in Asia and is vigilant about US military moves. As long as this issue is not resolved, it will exist as a contingency in Sino-Japanese relations and affect the stability of East Asia.

Security competition seems hard to attenuate

Faced with geopolitical and sentimental entanglement, China and Japan will not easily dismiss their security dilemma. Military modernization, economic growth, and increasing influence make a stronger but more assertive China a persistent factor in international affairs. It wants to act and be treated as a great power. Nowadays, China’s international and regional influences cannot be neglected and keep expanding. Its growth of national power leads to Japan’s security anxiety. In Japan’s defense white paper, the “China threat” is a persistent stress. To cope with the development of the Chinese military, Japan makes great efforts to strengthen its naval and air power. Moreover, Japan and China are accelerating their competition in East Asia. In July 2016, Abe proposed the concept of a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy” as Japan’s new national strategy, aimed at intensifying security cooperation in the Indo-Pacific area. The priority of this policy includes supporting “the efforts of countries with which Japan shares universal values, including the rule of law, and cooperate in the fields of reinforcing the capacity of maritime law enforcement, establishing legal systems.”12 This strategy is considered a counterbalance to China’s expansion of influence in Asia, and China also sees Japan’s new strategy along with US supremacy in Asia as a huge threat to its national security. Although Japan and China can cooperate on economic matters, that is hard to translate into alleviation of security tensions. Their conflicting strategies complicate relations and leave the potential of military antagonism.

Leadership values and perceptions are also decisive in China-Japan relations. China and Japan have different systems, but they both have strong governments. Leadership attitudes matter a lot in their respective policy-making. The current generation of Chinese and Japanese leaders have completely different values and thoughts due to the significant impact of the national system and ideology on them. This divergence was overlooked in the 1970s during the rapprochement of the two countries. Abe continues pushing constitutional amendments and military construction. Japan pursues a “normalized” identity and wants to make corresponding contributions as a great power in the international community, while China views Japan’s military modernization and possible constitutional amendments as aggressive militarization. Due to the heavy weight of historical memory, China always stays vigilant and sows hostility toward Japan’s military strengthening. Not only do perceptions on identity largely diverge, China and Japan have different ways of thinking and doing things. In China, economics and politics are highly integrated, but the Japanese government is used to compartmentalize economic and political affairs. In terms of concrete measures, the Abe administration separates economic policy and security strategy. This difference may cause more misinterpretations and frictions between the two countries when dealing with related issues.

Currently China and Japan are in a stage of retuning their bilateral relations; Abe declared in Beijing that ties have turned to “re-coordination” rather than “competition”. however, the nature of relations has not tremendously changed. China and Japan remain in strategic competition in Asia. Although the degree of economic interdependence has risen, the most sensitive issues that obstruct a truly benign relationship between the two Asian giants have not been resolved and can dramatically impact relations in the future. Under the background of pressures from domestic politics and a changing international situation, Sino-Japanese relations may face more challenges in the future (as well as opportunities), but it is fair to assume that both leaders are seriously attempting to press the “reset button.”

* The author is thankful to Ms. Zhou Shiyi for her assistance.

1. “Japan-China Summit Meeting,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, July 8, 2017, https://www.mofa.go.jp/a_o/c_m1/cn/page4e_000636.html.  

2. “Japanese and Chinese officials mark 45th anniversary of diplomatic ties in Beijing,” The Japan Times, September 9, 2017, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2017/09/09/national/politics-diplomacy/event-marking-45th-anniversary-normalization-japan-china-ties-held-beijing/#.W62r8mX_fBI.

3. “Abe tries hand at charming China, calls for Xi’s visit to Japan,” The Asahi Shimbun, September 29, 2017, http://www.asahi.com/ajw/articles/AJ201709290039.html.

4. “Japan, China exchange warm words for key anniversary,” Nikkei Asian Review, September 29, 2017, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/Japan-China-exchange-warm-words-for-key-anniversary2.

5. David Kim, “More Than Meets the Eye: The 2018 Japan-China-South Korea Trilateral Summit,” The Diplomat, May 8, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/05/more-than-meets-the-eye-the-2018-japan-china-south-korea-trilateral-summit/.

6. Thisanka Siripala, “After the Presidential Election, What Next for Abe and the LDP?” The Diplomat, September 23, 2018, https://thediplomat.com/2018/09/after-the-presidential-election-what-next-for-abe-and-the-ldp/.

7. Reiji Yoshida, “Rising trade war with U.S. the mere ‘last push’ for Japan and China to improve ties, but officials still cautious,” The Japan Times, September 13, 2018, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2018/09/13/national/politics-diplomacy/rising-trade-war-u-s-mere-last-push-japan-china-improve-ties-officials-still-cautious/.

8. Melissa Cyrill, “The RCEP Trade Deal and Why its Success Matters to China,” China Briefing, September 6, 2018, http://www.china-briefing.com/news/rcep-trade-deal-success-matters-china/.

9. Berkshire Miller, “Japan Warms to China: Why Abe and Xi Are Slowly Mending Ties,” Foreign Affairs, July 17, 2017, https://www.foreignaffairs.com/articles/asia/2017-07-17/japan-warms-china.

10. Zhong Shan, “An open China and a win-win world,” Renmin Ribao, July 2, 2018, Full text translated on Xinhuanet, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/2018-07/02/c_137296686.htm.

11. Shotaro Tani, “Mattis included Senkaku isles in US-Japan defense treaty: Japan official,” Nikkei Asian Review, February 3, 2017, https://asia.nikkei.com/Politics/International-Relations/Mattis-included-Senkaku-isles-in-US-Japan-defense-treaty-Japan-official2.

12. “Priority Policy for Development Cooperation FY 2017,” International Cooperation Bureau, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, April 2017, p. 3.