A View from the United States

Prime Minister Abe Shinzo had hoped to improve ties with Beijing ever since returning to office in 2012, and finally, as China’s relations with the United States were at their worst in decades, Abe was invited to a summit with President Xi Jinping. The visit was cordial, with both Xi and Abe emphasizing their shared interests and desire for a “fresh start,” but it was not celebratory. It had taken far too long to realize for either leader to be overly optimistic, and the growing uncertainty in Asia’s geopolitics seemed to dampen expectations in both countries.

Ever since 2012, Tokyo and Beijing have struggled. A territorial dispute in the East China Sea amped up military tensions and stopped high-level summitry for another two years. Although in a sense both Abe and Xi inherited the deteriorated Sino-Japanese relations, neither was predisposed towards compromise. Both came into office promising to stand firm on their country’s maritime defenses.1 Each made full use of the “China threat” or “Japan threat,” respectively, to beef up military spending. Both also appealed to Washington to press the other to end the crisis.2  The two leaders finally met face-to-face during the November 2014 APEC meeting, hosted by Beijing, after reaching agreement on the need to reduce the risk of a military clash.3

Six years later Xi and Abe are looking beyond repairing the damage done in 2012 and hoping to build a more constructive Japan-China relationship.  Abe’s visit to Beijing is the second step in a three-step diplomatic effort.  First was the visit to Japan by Premier Li Keqiang in May of this year. Li’s trip coincided with the Japan-ROK-China trilateral meeting, a diplomatic initiative begun in 2008 that allows the three neighbors to discuss shared concerns.  The Japan-China dispute had halted this, putting trilateral diplomacy on hold for years.  Li arrived in Japan with an optimistic message, and carried with him an invitation for Abe to visit China later in the year. Moreover, Li noted that Xi would look favorably on a visit to Japan in 2019.

In Beijing, Xi and Abe agreed that they wanted to shift their bilateral relationship from competition to cooperation, a sign that both want to put their flare-up over the Senkakus behind them. Another phrase that emerged during the summit was that Japan and China should become partners rather than threats, again a direct reflection on the growing military tensions that have soured their relationship. A military hotline was established, and while this had been discussed before, this time Abe and Xi seemed to share a sense of urgency about its necessity.4

Since Abe and Xi first met in 2014, much of the progress in improving Sino-Japanese ties has been made in the economic realm, and this year’s summit continued to reflect this emphasis. Both leaders advocated for free and fair trade in the region.  The two countries’ stock exchanges agreed to establish ETFs (Exchange-Traded Funds), allowing Japanese and Chinese investors to participate in each other’s economy more easily.  Of particular note was the idea that Japan and China ought to cooperate in meeting the infrastructure needs of the Asian region. A memorandum of understanding included an agenda of 50 projects Japan and China would cooperate on. Private sector funds were encouraged. Japan’s Mizuho bank agreed to procure funds for projects in the region alongside China’s CITIC for new initiatives in Southeast Asia. Projects are estimated to reach as much as 100 billion yen (around $890 million).5

Yet Japan and China see their ambitions in Asia differently. The Abe cabinet sees expanded cooperation in third countries as evidence that its free and open Indo-Pacific vision is indeed inclusionary, while the Chinese government claimed it had persuaded Japan to join its Belt and Road initiative (BRI). Despite the difference in rhetoric, Japan and China clearly want to end the jarring dissonance that has characterized their regional diplomacy in recent years. 

Realism rather than idealism drives this latest effort to repair Japan-China ties. This is not the first effort at recovering from a period of protracted friction, and it is unlikely to be the last. There are lower expectations this time around. The highly choreographed summitry between 2006 and 2008 had produced a lofty new program of “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” for the Japan-China relationship, and policymakers in both capitals seemed optimistic that Beijing and Tokyo could weather the new geopolitics of Asia.6 

But there are cautionary notes in the last effort at finding a stable basis for Japan-China relations that should inform this current round of diplomacy.  Indeed, in 2006, it was Abe Shinzo who initiated the outreach to China after his predecessor’s visits to Yasukuni Shrine led to a diplomatic breakdown. Yet with a new leader in power in China, Abe found little appetite for a repeat performance. Even the promise of forward momentum that resulted from the meeting between Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and President Hu Jintao who completed the last reset in 2008 seemed elusive. Many of the same diplomats in Japan and China who set the stage for the highly successful Hu-Fukuda summit worked on this recent Abe-Xi meeting. Some of the same issues were back on the table. Fukuda and Hu agreed to joint energy development in the East China Sea, and also to pursue deeper consultations on the burgeoning trade in raw and processed foods.7 The mood then was so positive that the Chinese president accepted Japan’s offer of earthquake assistance in devastated Sichuan within hours of returning home to China, allowing the Japanese assistance team unprecedented access to the affected areas. But neither an agreement on standards by which to regulate food safety nor a joint energy development plan materialized, and a decade later, both problems were on the list of to-dos for Abe and Xi. Japan and China are still trying to solve problems that matter to their citizens.

Yet this high-level summitry could not inoculate Japan-China relations from strife.  The two governments could not implement their ambitious diplomatic agenda, and an array of unresolved irritants drew popular ire. Issues ranging from worries about food security to the inability to implement the Hu-Fukuda agreement on the shared maritime boundary continued to alarm Japanese and Chinese citizens, but it was the two government’s inability to manage the run in around the Senkakus in 2011 that plunged the two Asian giants into a crisis so severe that it shook the world. While Abe and Xi managed to bring their countries back from the brink, they are still trying to solve many of the same issues that their predecessors confronted a decade earlier.

Today, as Tokyo and Beijing try once more to put a more cooperative cast on their relationship, their growing unease about the future of Asia cannot be ignored. The future of US strategy has emerged as a primary source of concern around Asia. Despite his close ties with President Donald Trump, Abe is facing a far less certain future for his country and its alliance with the United States. While it might be too early for Japan to hedge its bets on its alliance with the United States in Asia, the unpredictability in the Trump administration’s policy has already had an impact on Japan’s strategic calculations and a national defense plan due out this December is expected to see far greater investment in military capability than in the past.

Xi must view Washington with far deeper concern as his government’s attempt to negotiate a trade deal seems to have fallen on deaf ears.  The Trump administration has upped the ante by imposing tariffs on Chinese goods. In China, the US approach to China has been deemed far more menacing, and Vice President Mike Pence’s October speech confirmed what many in China feared—the United States now sees China as its primary strategic competitor and accommodation on trade is unlikely.8 The United States must have been on the minds of both Abe and Xi.  Indeed, both leaders took pains to emphasize their commitment to free trade and to the existing international order.

Japan, however, has not leaned in to China in an effort to counter its growing worries about the United States. Rather, the Abe cabinet has stepped up its efforts to diversify its strategic partners. No sooner had Abe touched back down in Tokyo then India’s prime minister, Mahendra Modi, arrived in Japan. Abe and Modi have found common cause in their Indo-Pacific approach to regional development and have met frequently to demonstrate their diplomatic and economic affinity. On this trip, Delhi and Tokyo agreed to step up an already active agenda of military cooperation by concluding a logistics and access agreement that expands their militaries’ ability to exercise and train together.9

The Abe-Xi summit marked a much-improved bilateral relationship that was long overdue and required considerable effort to accomplish. The agenda for cooperation is heavy on economic opportunity, and for greater rather than lesser integration of the two Asian economies, the second and third largest in the world. Moreover, it allows Tokyo and Beijing to begin on the same page when it comes to improving regional infrastructure. The Abe cabinet undoubtedly hopes that it can shape the standards used in the BRI, while Xi and his government must take heart that they have persuaded Japan to join rather than oppose his signature leadership initiative. 

There is the third phase of this round of diplomatic healing to come, however.  Xi’s visit to Japan next year is seen as culminating this effort to put Japan-China relations on an even keel. There are lots of reasons to be more sanguine about avoiding an inadvertent conflict in the East China Sea, but Xi will need to work hard to convince the Japanese people that his government does not seek to unsettle their security. And Abe will need to prove that he was right to trust China to improve the prospects for Japanese economic growth. There remains an element of strategic fragility to this relationship that goes beyond any one summit meeting or any new set of commitments to a “fresh start.” 

The Japan-China bilateral relationship is now subject to the vagaries of regional geopolitics, and while dissonance between them worries others in the region, few would like to see Tokyo and Beijing become too close. Balancing against China’s growing power has become the name of the game in Asia, and Japan is one of the region’s largest players in that game. Avoiding war with China while attempting to build a coalition of like-minded partners will likely be Tokyo’s goal for some time.

1. China also took steps to bolster its ability to assert its sovereignty. First it dispatched its Coast Guard to patrol the Senkakus, and by 2013, the Chinese Coast Guard was making regular visits to the islands. In 2014, it announced an Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ) in the East China Sea, claiming an area that intruded into both Japanese and South Korean ADIZs. Included also in China’s new ADIZ were the Senkaku Islands and Ieodo, a submerged islet claimed by Seoul.

2. The US and Japan recognized the potential for a mishap or miscalculation to escalate tensions. Tokyo argued that the US-Japan alliance needed to focus more on this “gray zone” problem, and in 2015 the two announced an update to their defense cooperation guidelines. 

3. For my assessment of Japan’s increasing difficulties with China, see Intimate Rivals:  Japanese Domestic Politics and a Rising China (New York: Columbia University Press, 2015).

4. China and Japan discussed crisis communications in the wake of the Chinese fishing trawler incident, but although an agreement was reached to create a hotline, the agreement was never implemented. See Sheila Smith, “A Sino-Japanese Clash in the East China Sea,” Council on Foreign Relations, April 22, 2013, https://www.cfr.org/report/sino-japanese-clash-east-china-sea.

5.   See Yusho Cho and Kyohei Suga, “Xi-Abbe summit to trigger dozens of cross-border deals,” Nikkei Asian Review, October 24, 2018, https://asia.nikkei.com/Business/Business-Deals/Xi-Abe-summit-to-trigger-dozens-of-cross-border-deals.

6. See the 2008 joint statement by Prime Minister Fukuda Yasuo and President Hu Jintao, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, https://www.mofa.go.jp/region/asia-paci/china/joint0805.html.

7.   For the details of the 2008 agreement on joint energy development in the East China Sea, see: https://www.mofa.go.jp/files/000091726.pdf. Also, the issue of food security evolved from Japanese concerns over Chinese food production to Chinese concerns over food products from Japan after the Fukushima nuclear crisis in 2011. Food security differences between Tokyo and Beijing are discussed in Smith, Intimate Rivals, Chapter 5.

8. See Vice President Pence’s speech, The White House, October 4, 2018, https://www.whitehouse.gov/briefings-statements/remarks-vice-president-pence-administrations-policy-toward-china/

9. Coverage of the Modi visit to Japan was cast the Indian prime minister’s visit as a strategic plus. See Sanjay Pulipaka, “India-Japan Strategic Partnership and the Multipower Order,” The Economic Times, November 4, 2018, :  https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/blogs/et-commentary/india-japan-strategic-partnership-and-the-multipowerorder/