China-Japan relations

Are China and Japan on the road to better relations? It’s complicated

Anthony Rowley says Beijing and Tokyo consider Donald Trump too erratic to fully trust, and recognise that uninhibited competition for resources would be costly, setting up an opportunity for limited cooperation

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 11:26am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 February, 2018, 11:26am

An apparent “entente” of the kind being witnessed now between Japan and China, whose mutual relations have long been severely strained over a series of issues, seems almost too good to be true – and in some ways it is. A marriage or “alliance” of convenience better describes what is taking place.

Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, and China’s president, Xi Jinping, who could barely manage more than a limp and grimacing handshake a couple of years ago – and then only in the third-party setting of an international meeting – are now preparing for official visits to each other’s countries.

If this were a spontaneous meeting of minds and a real rapprochement between Asia’s most important powers, it would be an occasion for rejoicing. But it is more a question of expediency on both sides, although it does also perhaps offer a step along the road towards greater stability in Asia.

Abe and Xi appear anxious to “hedge” against an unpredictable US President Donald Trump, whose relations with both could be undermined by trade tensions. At the same time, they need to find a kind of modus vivendi to replace their mutually destabilising competition and confrontation.

Abe appears to be giving Xi “face” by reportedly agreeing to visit Beijing in the latter half of this year – a move which has a kind of “tribute-paying” suggestion about it – and only after that would Xi make an official visit to Japan early next year.

But Abe is hoping to achieve his own ends. He is proposing a summit of Japanese, Chinese and South Korean leaders in Japan this spring. This would involve him acting as a leader of East Asian diplomacy and position him well vis-à-vis Trump, to whom he acts as a mentor on Asian affairs.

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Abe is also apparently hoping to use the proposed summit as an occasion to tighten the sanctions noose on North Korea and give Trump the impression that East Asia’s leading diplomatic and economic powers are united behind an “all options on the table” approach towards North Korea.

This is unlikely to appeal to Xi, however, who has said repeatedly that China favours negotiations with Pyongyang rather than coercion or any hint of force. The diplomatic dance that Japan is trying to engage China in could therefore end in a stumble, it seems.

The still brittle nature of relations between Tokyo and Beijing was underlined by an apparently trivial occurrence when Japan’s foreign minister, Taro Kono ,met Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in the Chinese capital on an official visit last weekend, when Li praised the red tie Kono wore.

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Japan’s Yomiuri newspaper reported that the Chinese premier said this denoted that Japan is anxious to please China, as the colour red is believed to bring good luck. Li also suggested somewhat patronisingly that Kono’s call for closer Japan-China ties demonstrated a “positive attitude”.

In response, the Yomiuri quoted a Japanese government source as saying that Li “made haughty comments like that apparently out of China’s desire to show its people that it is Japan that wants to improve bilateral ties...”.

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Such comments appear remarkably trivial in a global context but they illustrate the difficulty Japan still has in accepting China as at least an equal partner on the global stage. China’s overtaking Japan as the world’s second-largest economy behind the United States has exacerbated this.

Until China emerged as a key diplomatic and economic power in recent decades, Japan had become accustomed to thinking of itself as primus inter pares among Asian powers and as the closest ally of the US. It saw itself as the channel through which Asia communicated with the world.

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These notions have since been badly upset, not only by China’s remarkable and continuing economic rise but also by its emergence as a key rival in both diplomatic and strategic terms – in short, as at least an equal player with Japan on the global stage.

This is a key reason why Japan offered strong support under Abe for the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement promoted by former US president Barack Obama as part of his economic and strategic “pivot” towards Asia. The TPP would have cemented Japan-US relations against China.

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Trump’s decision to pull the US out the TPP confounded Abe’s strategy and left Tokyo casting around furiously for alternatives, one of which was to support an 11-member (instead of the original 12) pact in the hope of luring the US back in at some point.

The prospect all this raised, of a China-dominated alternative to the TPP in the shape of the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement, alarmed Tokyo, especially given China’s “Belt and Road Initiative and the launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.

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Again, Japan reacted by proposing a rival to the belt and road in the shape of the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor scheme which aims, like the Chinese scheme, to link Asia with the Middle East and North Africa and which is supposed to be implemented in cooperation with India.

These opposing schemes help explain why Tokyo and Beijing seem to favour some sort of entente now. Competition for resources could be costly and at least limited collaboration is worth examining. For China, it also a way to prevent the US signing onto a Japan-led “Indo-Pacific” strategy – via the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor rather than an Asia-Pacific-oriented belt and road.

Anthony Rowley is a veteran journalist specialising in Asian economic and financial affairs. He was formerly business editor and international finance editor of the Hong Kong-based Far Eastern Economic Review and worked earlier on The Times newspaper in London