Five ways Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe can join forces to power the Asian century
William Pesek says in a world continually rocked by the latest Trump tweet, China and Japan need to recognise the enormous opportunities for the two Asian powers and humanity at large, if their leaders can set aside differences
A paradox of this Asian century is the distance between the leaders of its two biggest powers. For all US President Donald Trump’s bluster and intrigue, he has already spent quality time at his Florida lair with both China’s Xi Jinping (習近平) and Japan’s Shinzo Abe. In 4½ years, President Xi and Prime Minister Abe have had, at most, a few fleeting exchanges on the sidelines of broader world summits.
This distance, apparently temperamental as well as physical, belies the enormous challenges and opportunities in Asia, relating to economic cooperation, security and environmental protection.
Tokyo and Beijing should be joining forces, not just to hasten growth but to ensure the future is one of greater inclusion, stability and sustainability. They should be spearheading Asia-wide free trade, linking bond and stock markets, harmonising accounting, tax and immigration norms, and devising diplomatic channels to ensure regional peace. Instead, anger over the distant past and today’s nationalistic imperatives make Abe and Xi relative strangers.
The good news is that a diplomatic thaw may be afoot. Japan is proposing reciprocal summits that would see him visiting Beijing and Xi going to Tokyo. Abe’s team is targeting 2018, but isn’t ruling out an earlier encounter.
Here are five pressing topics Asia’s two big powers should tackle for the good of humankind.
First, TPP 2.0: pulling out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership was only half of one of Trump’s biggest blunders to date. The other: offering no alternative. Abe has since tried to get the other 10 members, including Australia, Canada and Singapore, to forge ahead without the US.
Trouble is, the absence of a giant economic engine makes it harder for the TPP to achieve lift-off. Why not ask Beijing to take Washington’s place? Not only would it give 11 nations greater access to the world’s No 2 economy, it would also nudge Xi to make China more of a stakeholder in global prosperity, and not just a shareholder. It would provide a framework for Abe and Xi to woo other developing economies in their orbit, creating something of an Asian community and so reduce the odds of an Asian currency war. As Trump veers toward protectionism, Xi says China will keep the globalisation flame alive. Resurrecting the TPP is Beijing’s chance to prove it.
Second, taking on North Korea. Having Kim Jong-un’s back as he trolls Tokyo and Washington with missiles and threats is costing Xi global soft power. Until recently, tolerating Pyongyang’s antics was a useful way of keeping Japan and the US off balance. Now, it is undermining Xi’s desire for a bigger say in global affairs. In Japan, meanwhile, worries about Kim’s nuclear weapons are even threatening daily commutes. In late April, the Tokyo Metro began halting trains when Pyongyang fires missiles.
For all the acrimony and distrust, Kim’s nukes present a grand opportunity for Xi and Abe to work together. Yes, their underlying priorities differ. Xi wants to avoid Kim’s regime collapsing, which would have refugees flooding into China and put US troops on his doorstep. For Abe’s Japan, the threat is an existential one. But the world would be a safer, calmer and thankful place if Xi and Abe stopped Kim’s tantrums.
Third, an infrastructure boom. As economic pies go, it’s hard to find a bigger one than Asia’s US$23 trillion need for new roads, bridges, airports, ports, power grids and clean water through to 2030. While the Japan-dominated Asian Development Bank has long been on the case, China’s gargantuan Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank is remaking the economics and politics of hardware needed to spread the benefits of rapid growth. So far, Japan and the US have (unwisely) refused to join the AIIB. Abe must put stubbornness aside and see dollar signs. China’s construction practices are at best underdeveloped. Japan is promoting “quality infrastructure” as an alternative. Put China’s cash together with Japan’s expertise, and economies from Mongolia to Indonesia will prosper. China and Japan would benefit from the new markets these investments would build. And Asia would owe Tokyo and Beijing unending gratitude .
Fourth: the Trump mess. Any Asian leader who thinks Trump’s presidency is going to end well is dreaming. True, Trump’s scandals, unilateralism, knack for unfriending allies and policy chaos are a gift to Xi. Withdrawal from the Paris climate accord raised Xi’s status as keeper of the global order.
But Xi’s debt-ridden economy is just one Trump Twitter rant away from crisis. What if Trump bombed Pyongyang to turn the narrative away from Russia? The highlight of Trump’s presidency, remember, was April 6, when he fired 59 Tomahawk missiles at Syria. Even critics applauded. Trump might want to experience that high again.
Then again, a China trade war would wag the proverbial dog quite nicely. Japan, too, is in @realDonaldTrump’s line of fire, with the yen and Toyota already taking incoming. Xi and Abe should forge a united front to devise contingency plans for Trump shocks to come – with hotlines, pooling of currency reserves, and regional market surveillance mechanisms.
Toyota Motor said will build a new plant in Baja, Mexico, to build Corolla cars for U.S. NO WAY! Build plant in U.S. or pay big border tax.
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) January 5, 2017
Why not pull South Korea’s Moon Jae-in into the mix? Strength in numbers will matter as Trump’s 140-character bromides upset the neighbourhood.
And fifth, mulling Asia’s future. Why not discuss a common vision for this Asian century? This might sound naive given the animosity, egos and mistrust hovering over any such brainstorming (China turning Panama against Taiwan is not a promising sign). Asia lacks an administrative referee or guardrail like the European Union or Nato. “If Xi and Abe can sit together for an hour or two,” says Tokyo University’s Masahiro Kawai, “they should talk about what sort of Asia they want to see and what each country can do for this purpose” and “in a more concrete way” after that.
Why not work jointly on green-growth technologies? China risks choking on rapid GDP growth; Japan’s potential as a renewable-energy powerhouse remains unrealised. Join forces and Asia owns the industry of the future.
Trump can have his coal mines. Xi and Abe have more important – and forward-looking – things to talk about. All they need to do is try.
William Pesek is a Tokyo-based journalist and the author of Japanization: What the World Can Learn from Japan’s Lost Decades. Twitter: @williampesek