A chance for China and Japan to strengthen ties
Mutual visits by top leaders is a good starting point but developing better relations will require strong political will and the key is to improve communication, consultation and cooperation
Warming ties between China and Japan were evident in the congratulatory messages exchanged to mark the 40th anniversary of the nations’ peace and friendship treaty. Premier Li Keqiang spoke of Beijing’s willingness to work with Tokyo to develop long-term, healthy and stable bilateral relations. His counterpart, Shinzo Abe, said he was “very pleased” to have ties “return to a normal path”. The world’s second- and third-largest economies need to have such understanding and goals, for the sake of their development and regional stability.
It is a far cry from this time last year, when ties were frayed by visits by Japanese government officials to the Yasukuni Shrine commemorating war dead, claims of whitewashing history and a territorial dispute. Whereas then the possibility of Abe visiting Beijing for talks was out of the question, now it seems more certain. Li made his first trip to Japan since becoming premier in 2013 in May, and met the prime minister. Pledges to push ahead with a free-trade pact were made. Abe is likely to go to China in coming months and expectations are high that President Xi Jinping will travel to Japan next year. But improving ties is still a delicate process, as illustrated by the criticism directed at the Japanese leader for sending a ritual offering to the shrine last Wednesday on the anniversary of Japan’s second world war surrender.
US President Donald Trump’s “America First” policy and the trade turmoil he has unleashed have changed circumstances. A full-blown trade war between China and the United States is under way and Japan has found its close alliance with Washington does not offer protection. Japan has been hit with steel and aluminium tariffs and moves against its auto industry have been threatened. It was inevitable that Beijing and Tokyo would set aside differences to shore up their economies.
China is Japan’s biggest trading partner and almost half of the overseas operations of Japanese companies are on Chinese soil. Beijing recently granted Tokyo a 200 billion yuan (US$29.3 billion) quota to buy assets including bonds and stocks. Japan has expressed interest in signing up to China’s “Belt and Road Initiative”, although it also has joined with the US and Australia in an infrastructure agreement. A need to protect trade has brought China and Japan closer. Using mutual benefit to improve ties is wise diplomacy. But the traditional rivals have plenty of historic baggage to overcome, with Japan’s wartime past and the territorial row over the Diaoyu Islands, known to Japanese as the Senkakus, top of the list. Developing better relations will require strong political will and the key is to improve communication, consultation and cooperation.