China-Japan relations

Trump offers Beijing and Tokyo chance to build relations again

Japan has been the subject of a Chinese charm offensive since the United States launched its trade war and both Asian nations should seize the moment

PUBLISHED : Friday, 14 September, 2018, 9:08pm
UPDATED : Friday, 14 September, 2018, 9:42pm

If there is a silver lining in Washington’s growing trade war against China, it is that it’s driving the world’s second and third largest economies closer. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will have his first bilateral visit to Beijing as soon as next month, to be reciprocated by President Xi Jinping at a later date. The news came as the two leaders met at the Eastern Economic Forum in Vladivostok.

Late last month, a round of talks between Japanese Finance Minister Taro Aso and his Chinese counterpart Liu Kun was described as “extremely good”, with both sides agreeing to cooperate on economic policies. A currency swap arrangement has also been revived in case of an emergency.

While the United States will remain Japan’s most important ally, the two Asian economic powerhouses are natural trading partners, and would have remained so had it not been for territorial disputes in the East China Sea. The thaw in bilateral relations is not just a temporary alignment of interests; rather both geography and economics dictate them. Last year, bilateral trade was worth more than US$300 billion, and both sides must work to maintain it for the long haul. A protectionist Trump White House means Japan and China will want to keep their options open. Washington’s tariffs on steel and its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, potentially a trading bloc to rival the European Union, have been great irritants to Tokyo.

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Beijing must balance its territorial ambitions and economic interests. It was furious in 2012 when the Japanese government bought three of the disputed Diaoyu group of islands from a private owner. Since then, it has allowed relations to cool. In 2011, Japan was the largest source of foreign investment. Today, it has slipped to fifth.

But as Washington launched a trade war against China, Beijing began a charm offensive, with Li Keqiang making his first visit as premier since 2013. After his mission in May, both sides agreed to launch a direct communication system between their military forces to prevent any accidental clash between warships or warplanes.

Last month, the two countries celebrated the 40th anniversary of their 1978 peace treaty. Interestingly, officials instructed a university in Shanghai to postpone a symposium on Chinese wartime sex slaves under the Japanese imperial army shortly before the anniversary. Beijing can and will set aside historical grievances when more urgent priorities intrude. The fear in Beijing is that the US, Japan and the EU would work together against China. But Trump’s erratic policy shifts have created a strategic opening. Both temporary exigencies and long-term interests dictate that Beijing should never let stable and productive relations with Japan slip again.