Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s landmark three-day visit to Beijing from October 25-27, 2018, exemplifies the changing undertone in the fragile relations that have been severely affected by territorial disputes and contentions over Japan’s past aggression. With Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s that the relations have “returned” to “the proper track,” Abe that both sides will work to ensure that “neither is a threat to the other.” This new thinking between Beijing and Tokyo call for a gamut of changes to the long-hauled reconciliation between the two countries.
With the equation predominantly defined as “hot economics, cold politics,” Abe’s China visit marks a landmark in two ways. First, it is symbolic given the 40th anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978. And second, it is significant as it breaks the diplomatic deadlock as Abe’s visit marks the first state visit to China by a Japanese leader after an interregnum of seven years. To note, the relations came to a halt with Japan’s nationalization of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in 2012, which China claims and Japan controls. Sino-Japan relations then entered in a state of political and diplomatic freeze.
In this context, the Xi-Abe factor plays a vital role in changing the discourse of Sino-Japanese relations. This leadership equation has been the most dynamic factor in the diplomatic discourse. The momentum to this unfolding warmth was paved with the first one-on-one Xi-Abe meeting held on the sidelines of the 2017 G20 Summit, which was preceded by a brief meeting on the sidelines of the 2016 APEC Summit. However, the impetus was provided by Abe’s extension of cooperation towards China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2017 which gave a new thrust to China and Japan’s frosty relationship. To note, Japan’s skepticism towards the BRI had strained the relations as witnessed in Japan’s refusal to become a founding member of the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). Furthermore, to counter China’s BRI, Japan launched its “Partnership for Quality Infrastructure” (PQI) initiative in 2015. Bridging the gap, China and Japan have recently made significant strides. Of which, Li Keqiang’s visit to Tokyo in May 2018 brought about two key developments: first, an official on “Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism between the defense authorities of China and Japan” to prevent accidental clashes in the air and at sea. Second, the two countries an agreement to set up a private-public body to promote joint operations of the two countries’ enterprises in third countries- conforming to Abe’s tilt towards BRI. To which, a high-speed rail project in Thailand is the first joint infrastructure project abroad. Thereby, adding to this trajectory of incremental growth, Abe’s visit to Beijing is more significant over just being symbolic.
With nationalism high on the agenda, the Xi-Abe nexus exemplify that “two tigers can sit on the same mountain.” With their second terms in place, a stable China-Japan relationship acts in the best interest for both Xi and Abe, as the common goal lies in achieving regional peace and stability against the background of the United States’ reduced interest in the Asian theatre and its withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP); the US-North Korea rapprochement; the push towards Regional Cooperative Economic Partnership (RCEP), and others. Emphasizing that the relations have “encountered a lot of obstacles,” Xi categorically that “[a] healthy relationship between China and Japan serves the basic interests of both countries.”
Although the current times call for a favorable shift in China-Japan relations, the key impediment still remains to be the unresolved dispute in the East China Sea. The routine tensions will test the two countries’ commitment to reach a tangible consensus.
In view of this, the ongoing thaw between Beijing and Tokyo is not an exception, but a pragmatic choice. It is a calibrated decision on either side, given the growing contingencies. Wherein, at the apex lies the US-factor as denominated by President Donald Trump’s “America first” policy. The rising concerns over Trump’s export-import trade tariffs have caused the push-pull effect in the international system — prompting a renewed effort for China and Japan to put their differences aside. Most precisely, on China, US has levied tariffs of 10 percent on USD 200 billion of Chinese products, with the rate set to increase to 25 percent by the end of the year. To which, China by imposing tax on US imports worth about USD 60 billion. To note, in this trade frenzy, the two countries have already imposed tariffs on USD 50 billion worth of each other’s goods earlier this year. In view of this, Japan is not that far from being affected by Trump’s policy, as it is already hit by increased US steel and aluminum tariffs. Moreover, Japan has a with the US, in two key areas — automobiles and machinery, which has got zero percent tariffs on. In view of this, Japan’s carmakers are faced with a concern of a tariff of up to 25 percent on their products. However, Japan has already posed a that it may levy retaliatory tariffs on US goods totaling about USD 450 million a year.
Given these significant shifts in the international system, China and Japan’s tilt towards each other is not a coincidence, rather a timely response to the emerging uncertainties. To say so, as Xi that the two countries have become “more reliant” on each other, given globally, they “share more diverse mutual interests and mutual concern.” Here, the common factor implies to Trump’s increasing punitive measures on trade. To quell the risks of the growing US trade tariffs, China and Japan signed over 500 business deals with a total value of more than USD 2.6 billion, ranging from infrastructure, energy and car projects to a USD 30 billion currency swap pact. In view of this, the Xi-Abe bonhomie has become a critical need of the hour. It is a pragmatic choice for both: for Xi, who is pushing for reforms to sustain the stability in China’s growth; for Abe, who is making all efforts to recover Japan’s economic stature.
With Abe’s visit, as the warmth is well noted, however, the caveat lies in the missing “joint statement” between the two countries to seal this historic turning point in the relations. What makes the joint statement necessary is the fact that it was an official visit by Japan’s leader to China after a long diplomatic fallout. In view of this, a statement between the Xi and Abe would have officially grounded the thaw in the ties.
Although the current times call for a favorable shift in China-Japan relations, the key impediment still remains to be the unresolved dispute in the East China Sea. The routine tensions will test the two countries’ commitment to reach a tangible consensus. In this respect, the key question remains that: whether the two Asian giants under Xi-Abe’s leadership are able to “walk the talk” and have a “new thinking” towards each other. In this case, if Xi and Abe succeed in doing so by switching from “competition to collaboration,” then the two countries will set an example in the international system. Thereby, as there is no quick fix to the long-hauled fragility, the bonhomie between China and Japan is a constant test interplayed by their intentions. This therefore, helps clarify that in international relations, there are no “permanent friends, or enemies;” what rather weighs the equation is the “permanent interests” of the actors.