China-Japan relations

Why Shinzo Abe stopped prodding Beijing on the South China Sea

A mutual threat is drawing the two countries closer, improving prospects for three-way talks with South Korea

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 7:45pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 November, 2017, 10:38pm

China and Japan have signalled their intent to put bilateral relations back on track, raising hopes for the resumption of a stalled three-way summit with South Korea to tackle a shared threat.

During the Association of Southeast Asian Nations summit in Manila this week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was careful not to mention disputes in the South China Sea, while Chinese leaders called for both countries to build on the positive momentum.

Chinese analysts said tensions appeared to be easing between the two neighbours amid the threat from North Korea but China would wait to see if Tokyo’s pleasantries would be translated into Beijing-friendly policies.

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Abe has repeatedly raised the South China Sea issue during his last five years in office – much to Beijing’s irritation – so his silence this week was a marked contrast to the past.

Japan does not lay claim to the contested waters but various claimants including the Philippines and Vietnam have moved closer to Tokyo in recent years to counterbalance China.

Wrapping up his trip in Manila, Abe said both China and Japan would move their relations to a new level and leaders of the two nations should visit each other next year.

In talks with Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said he hoped Japan would work with China to improve Sino-Japanese relations, but added that Japan should respect history. Chinese President Xi Jinping made similar remarks in his meeting with Abe on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Da Nang, Vietnam.

More cordial relations could help Tokyo get Beijing and Seoul to the summit table to address the shared threat from Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile tests.

The summit had been planned for Tokyo in July but was called off because of Beijing’s long-standing suspicions about Tokyo and Seoul’s deployment of a US anti-missile system.

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Zhou Yongsheng, a Japanese affairs expert at China Foreign Affairs University, said North Korea’s provocations highlighted the need for Japan and China to work together to reduce the threat.

“The change in the security atmosphere in East Asia, especially when confronted by an increasingly provocative Pyongyang, made the two leaders sense the urgency to meet and cooperate,” Zhou said.

Lian Degui, a Japanese studies specialist at Shanghai International Studies University, said Abe appeared to be following US President Donald Trump’s lead in steering clear of the South China Sea.

“Trump placed emphasis on trade issues and pocketed many deals with China. Trump himself did not mention the maritime issue. It’s clever for Japan not to meddle in the water as well,” Lian said.

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But Lu Yaodong, a Japanese affairs expert from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, said China should keep watch on what Abe said and did.

“I do not think Japan will forever drop the South China Sea issue in international forums. It’s just a matter of time for them to rekindle the issue,” Lu said.

“The problems between China and Japan, like the Diaoyu Islands, have not been resolved, and such frictions are bound to resurface when bilateral ties worsen.”