Sino-Japanese Rapprochement: Where Is It Heading in 2019?
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo: Getty Images)
By Tai Wei Lim

Sino-Japanese Rapprochement: Where Is It Heading in 2019?

Mar. 07, 2019  |     |  0 comments

China and Japan appeared to have warmer relations of late. This was due to intentional efforts by Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the Chinese leadership. Five factors have made this rapprochement possible. First, Abe made deliberate attempts to reach out to Beijing at the November 2014’s APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) Summit in Beijing. This was popularly known to the mass media as the ice breaking talks or ice-thawing mission from the Abe administration to the Xi administration. It started the ball rolling on better relations, albeit a slow rollout. One common rallying issue at that point of time was the setting up of a maritime hotline to prevent accidental clashes at sea, since the two had disagreements over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.


The second factor that helped the rapprochement was the consolidation of leadership transitions in China and Japan. In China, President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power was successful with the anti-corruption campaign netting the Gang of Six and also other tigers, foxes and flies. Xi also made the tenures of his position and that of his Vice President Wang Qishan, the former anti-corruption tsar, for life. This ensured continuity and sustainability in his rule.


In Japan, Abe showed that he was a survivor. He became the longest serving Prime Minister in recent years, beating previous records set by Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi. The frequent changing of Prime Ministerships was one of the reasons that caused strains on the Sino-Japanese relations. Because of political stability, Abe was able to push through his policies with surety and certainty. And one of his cherished policy was to put Sino-Japanese relations on a surer footing without erratic swings in relations and to have a more realistic business-like relation that reflects the reality on the ground, which is the rising power of China and also a mature intellectual knowledge base of governance in Japan with a recovering economy. Abe reshuffled his cabinet and installed China-knowledgeable or scions of China-friendly politicians like the current Foreign Minister Taro Kono (son of Liberal Democratic Party’s China hand Yohei Kono).


The third factor that facilitated the rapprochement was the trade frictions between Beijing and Washington DC. This gave Beijing incentives to improve its relations with peripheral countries in order to leverage against Washington’s pressures in the trade frictions (some go so far as to call it a “trade war”). Beijing has since improved relations with South Korea, Southeast Asia and Japan. This promotes more stable relationships as Beijing is incentivized to realize that it is useful to have good neighborly relations. Tokyo and Seoul, as allies of the US, can also play useful roles as intermediaries for better Sino-US relations.


The fourth factor that facilitated warm bilateral relations between China and Japan were economic regionalism incentives. China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is facing headwinds in some areas and progress in others. Myanmar, Sri Lanka and Malaysia have become important case studies of how Beijing’s plans need substantial modifications once there is a change of government in those democratic or democratizing countries. Thus, Beijing wants to tap into Tokyo’s decades-long experience in the Asian Development Bank (ADB) in how to manage such challenges. When Abe met with Xi in 2018, this was one of the topics that was discussed.


Tokyo also expressed interest in studying the possibility of joining, or at least cooperating with, the Beijing-led multilateral Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB). It is also a major supporter of the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) agreement. For the AIIB aspect, Abe’s party sent its party chief and second most powerful party member Toshihiko Nikai to bring the message personally to Xi. Beijing also indicated that it is interested to study the possibility of having some form of association with the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), now pulled along by Australia, New Zealand and Japan after US departure (the Trump administration scuttled the deal). Beijing and Tokyo both have incentives to keep economic regionalism, regionalization and globalization going as they are beneficiaries of export-led economic growth and are industrial workshops of the world.

Tokyo is a deep and intense knowledge base of US relations with a major East Asian power. Its 1980s trade frictions with the US is already studied by China as the precedent of contemporary trade frictions between the US and an East Asian economy.

Both are major defenders of free and open trade in an age of Brexit, anti-globalization forces and America First populist backlash against globalization. Japan is also working with the West on fair trade. Tokyo was targeted by the Trump administration for tariffs on aluminium products while China was targeted in a vast range of products with threats by the Trump administration of extending to the full range of products that China exports to the US. This would then reach the stage of an all-out trade war. Only Seoul was spared the trade tariffs amongst the major economies of Northeast Asia.


The final factor may be a combination of the developments that will happen in 2019. Since the Trump-Kim summit in Hanoi in February 2019, both Beijing and Tokyo have incentives to ensure there is peace on the Korean Peninsula. Beijing is urging the US to ease sanctions against Pyongyang in exchange for North Korean concessions on missile testing programs and nuclear weaponry development. Tokyo is keen to see peace as well because North Korean missiles have been tested over Hokkaido airspace and sparked off alarms a number of times in northern Japan. Moreover, its kidnapped citizens taken to North Korea in mini submarines in the past have not been fully accounted for by Pyongyang. Only (those alive) some have been returned to Tokyo. 


In other words, there are incentives for Tokyo and Beijing to work together post Hanoi Summit to help integrate North Korea back into the international community. Beijing has great influence over North Korea as its current supporter and Tokyo can tap into that influence to help resolve its friction with North Korea over the kidnapped citizens. Currently, Seoul is vigorously helping Tokyo with the request for the accountability of the outcome of these Japanese citizens. Beijing can also work with Tokyo in joint projects for North Korean development in the distant scenarios should the Trump Kim rapprochement turn out positive. In the first Trump Kim summit, US President Donald J Trump had specifically mentioned and dangled the carrot of development opportunities with Tokyo and Seoul should Pyongyang open up.


2019 will also see some form of “ceasefire” between the Trump and Xi administrations in the trade front. Both sides are negotiating hard for some kind of compromise in their trade frictions. It may see Beijing giving concessions in buying more US products and the Trump administration may delay the implementation of more trade tariffs. For longer term sustainability, Tokyo is a living lab for Beijing when it comes to learning to deal with the US. Japan has had a long history of dealing with the US as its closest ally. The two are tied together in a US-Japan alliance reinforced since the 1960s.


Tokyo is a deep and intense knowledge base of US relations with a major East Asian power. Its 1980s trade frictions with the US is already studied by China as the precedent of contemporary trade frictions between the US and an East Asian economy. Perhaps, an even more important aspect is how to enhance that relationship further by avoiding some of the traps that had befuddled US-Japan trade relations in the past and learn the best practice features for the future while making sure that such initiatives are always adapted to Chinese local conditions and political system. This may then place Sino-US relations on more sustainable footing. There are also traditional issues that they can revive, including transboundary pollution. Beijing, Tokyo and Seoul can cooperate to in this aspect, especially since Tokyo is on the cusp of hosting the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The three Northeast Asian countries can also collaborate in non traditional security (NTS) issues like anti-piracy measures, anti-terrorism coordination, etc. They can pull in major partners like the US to participate to build up confidence. All these can contribute to peace in the region.


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