On January 27-28, 2018, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited Beijing to improve bilateral relations between the two countries. The Chinese side reciprocated and publicly announced its intention to improve relations with Japan. The atmosphere was a positive one. Kono met with two very influential Chinese leaders, namely Premier Li Keqiang, head of China’s State Council, in effect China’s cabinet, and State Councilor Yang Jiechi, who is keen to expand and improve Sino-Japanese relations.
This meeting was a follow up to discussions previously held at the APEC Summit in Danang, Vietnam on November 11-12, 2017 when the leaders of China and Japan met on the side-lines. It was at this event that the Japanese Prime Minister described a “fresh start” for Sino-Japanese relations. It was a clear attempt and desire to reboot the bilateral relationship. The uniting item on the top of both leaders’ agenda at that point of time was a focus on the tensions festering in the Korean Peninsula. Items discussed in Danang between China and Japan also included setting up a bilateral communications platform between the two countries.
Economically, there are some intentions by China and Japan to look at co-investments in other world regions. Despite challenges like an aging population (Japan) and the ongoing transition from an export-led to a domestic-consumption-dependent economy (China), China and Japan are still the world’s second and third largest economies. Their capacity and potential to cooperate and alleviate poverty in the world is tremendous.
This time round in January 2018, Kono was hosted at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse by the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi. The Japanese Minister’s father was an old China hand in Tokyo whom Beijing has acknowledged as an old friend of China. There is therefore a level of inter-generational familiarity involved in the meeting of the ministers from both countries. Kono is close to and trusted by Washington DC (he is a graduate of the prestigious Georgetown University, traditionally the US’ ranking diplomacy school) and Beijing. Kono delivered a message to Beijing, stating his Prime Minister’s intention to improve Sino-Japanese relations.
Many near-future visits could be taking place, for instance a bilateral exchange visit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, something that has not happened since 2012, and Premier Li Keqiang is expected to visit Tokyo for the first trilateral summit since 2015. Bilateral trade could be an agenda as both countries are the top two investors of each other. Reciprocal visits by the top leaders of both countries hold strong symbolism for their future relations and will also create an atmosphere for officials to communicate with each other. As for a reason to meet, there is no better reason than the 40th anniversary of Sino-Japanese ties. This can reverse the trust deficit between the two countries.
North Korean remains an urgent issue around which both countries can strengthen their cooperation. Kenji Kanasugi, the Director-General of the Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau at the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, and Kong Xuanyou, the Chinese special envoy for Korean affairs, held talks on North Korea on January 29. Japan is particularly sensitive about Pyongyang’s missile program — something understandable given that North Korean ICBMs have flown over Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido — and has urged Beijing to use its special influence with Pyongyang to hold back this program and re-join the international community. Japan is in favor of a coordinated approach in managing North Korea.
The Korean Peninsula situation has shown improvement as North and South Korea have rallied around the Winter Olympics, with North Korea showing willingness to send a delegation to the event and co-march with the South Korean delegation at the opening ceremony.
Recent accidental missile alerts in Hawaii and Japan have contributed to a heightened sense of tension amongst the peoples of Japan and the US. There is a need to address this heightened sense of potential nuclear war breaking out in the region. Most recently, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un had swaggered and warned the region about his access to the nuclear button. A social media exchange between Kim and US President Donald Trump then took place. Beijing is keen to contribute to defusing this crisis by following the UN sanctions to pressure Pyongyang to stop nuclear and missile tests. Japan had recently offered Pyongyang economic assistance if it did the right thing by stopping its belligerence and missile and nuclear tests. Japan has also been trying to bring home or find out the whereabouts of Japanese nationals who have been kidnapped by Pyongyang.
China and Japan are also revving up for an improvement in trilateral ties with South Korea. The trilateral meeting was cancelled in 2012 by China due to its festering dispute with Japan over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. Coastguards from the two countries have also continued an almost ritualistic cat and mouse chase in the East China Sea over disputed maritime areas. But the current agreement to meet trilaterally is timely, given a whole host of problems that require both countries to strengthen their cooperation with South Korea. In the first indication to hold a trilateral meeting in 2018, South Korea, China, and Japan spoke about this subject matter in the Philippines during the ASEAN summit on November 13-14, 2017. There is a common rallying point for all three Northeast Asian countries in forging cooperation, which is the need to defuse the situation on the Korean Peninsula.
China and Japan are also improving their relations with South Korea individually. Japan’s outreach to South Korea is on full swing as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made public his intentions to attend the Pyeongchang Olympics in South Korea. Chinese diplomacy has showed a dovish side recently, repairing relations with Seoul after nearly one year of hostilities over Seoul’s decision for the US to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Air Defence System (THAAD) in the country. The deal made between Beijing and Seoul for bringing about rapprochement was said to be based on Seoul’s promise to suspend further deployment of THAAD and self-restraint on its expansion. Beijing views THAAD’s powerful radar with suspicion, perceiving it as a possible asset that can detect missile launches and military aircraft movements in China and its airspace.
Against the backdrop of general rapprochement in Northeast Asia, even the Korean Peninsula situation has shown improvement as North and South Korea have rallied around the Winter Olympics, with North Korea showing willingness to send a delegation to the event and co-march with the South Korean delegation at the opening ceremony. This rapprochement came after a sustained period of deteriorating relations between Pyongyang and the US with the former’s series of ballistic missile and nuclear tests provoking the deployment of US carrier groups to the seas off the Korean Peninsula and the formidable B2 stealth bombers to Guam. The US is showing incredible self-restraint in trying to persuade Pyongyang to do the right thing and re-join the international community and hold talks with other regional stakeholders to stop its ballistic and nuclear programs.
Amidst cautious optimism, there are some lurking signs of enduring issues of disagreement, including a brief exchange over a Chinese nuclear submarine navigating into contested maritime territory between China and Japan. These two powers working in tandem with the US can bring peace and economic development to the region if they are willing to dialogue and talk about their differences and spot areas of complementarity. Japan is the US’ closest ally in the Pacific and East Asian region while China is an important interdependent economic partner with both the US and Japan. A lot is at stake here and a lot more can be accomplished with greater cooperation as well as cool-headed dialogue over regional differences.
Six years after 2012 when there was a major break and rift in bilateral relations due to disagreements over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, China and Japan are trying to contain the damage and reverse the tensions with cautious progress made. All that remains now for their two leaders to meet is for the bureaucrats and officials on both sides to check their leaders’ tightly-packed schedules to fix a suitable date for the bilateral top leadership meeting.