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The pendulum of Sino-Japanese relations
Photo: Economist
Mutual business interests alone are very unlikely to truly transform the strategic triangle of China, Japan and the US. Economically, Japan prioritize coordination with the United States to address non-market practices and IP issues. Geopolitically, it aligns with the US’s Indo-Pacific Strategy by building Asia-Africa Growth Corridor with India and participating in maritime exercise in South China Sea. The visit to Beijing by Japanese Prime Minister Abe did witness a thaw in Sino-Japanese relations, but it takes time and strenuous efforts to establish genuine good-neighborly ties between the two Asian giants.

When former US President Nixon surprised then Japanese government by visiting China in early 1972, Japan’s traditional policy of following the US in every diplomatic move was thrown into question. The anti-China government of Eisaku Sato was swiftly replaced by Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who embarked on an unprecedented visit to China on Sept. 25, 1972. Four days later, the two governments issued the Japan-China Joint Communique, with Japan switching diplomatic ties from Taiwan to Beijing. The treaty roused brow in the US which preferred Japan to retain its ties with Taiwan’s ROC government although itself adopts a strategic cozying up to People’s Republic of China. The preempt step taken by Japan to restore diplomatic ties with mainland China ahead of the US which established ties with China in 1979 was viewed as a turning point in Japan’s China policy from US-dependence to more self-driven.

After the rosy 1980s and especially the end of the cold war, however, Sino-Japanese ties have entered a period of capriciousness without a common cold war nemesis. The bilateral relations plunged to its nadir after the nationalization of the Diaoyu island or Senkaku island by Japan in 2012 as Beijing claimed the island as its own and undisputable territory since ancient times. In the following years, China-Japan relations are plagued with tensions over wartime grievances, geopolitical rivalry and territorial claims. Japanese Prime Minister Shizo Abe often found himself snubbed by Chinese leaders on various international occasions.

Like the old saying goes, there is no eternal enemy but eternal interest. Since 2016, there have been warming-up signs from the two countries, culminating in the recent mutual visit of Premier Li Keqiang and Prime Minister Shizo Abe. This détente is almost entirely a collateral effect of the Trump administration’s assault on China and the qualm incurred by Trump among its traditional allies due to his “America First” orientation and protectionist policy.

For Beijing, it can’t afford to be ostracized from the developed economies. The center of gravity in China’s foreign policy is shifting towards breaking a coalition the US seeks to build with EU and Japan to weaken China’s economy, prevent it from acquiring foreign technology, and undermine its global influence. China’s diplomacy is very traditional. It will never choose two enemies at the same time. Dealing with America is hard enough, so Japan is allowed out of the doghouse.

For Tokyo, the Trump administration’s imposition of steel and aluminum tariffs on national security grounds surprised Abe and has fueled discontent in Japan. Trump’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership was a blow to Japan. He has also suggested that US allies in Asia should do more to defend themselves and openly questioned the value of forward deployed US forces. Shizo Abe may have to wonder whether Trump’s actions will force Japan to hedge its bets and edge toward China.

Both countries share great economic interests, China is Japan’s biggest trading partner. Japan is China’s second-largest trading partner after the United States, and its fourth-biggest investor. So when Trump impose tariff on China’s exports, it also hurt Japanese companies who manufacture products in China or rely on the country’s supply chain. The only chance of resisting Washington’s assault on global institutions, rules and openness is the two countries holding the line to guard the global trading system. There are some signs of them working together towards that objective. China is considering joining the Japan-led TPP while Japan is actively pushing for the conclusion of RCEP negotiations led by China.

Friendship of convenience

Mutual business interests are very unlikely to truly transform the relationship. While China and Japan want to show that they are setting aside their differences to focus on common interests, strategic competition and mistrust still pervade every issue that defines their relationship. Those issues include territorial disputes over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands and the South China Sea, technology competition, and even rivalry over trade and international connectivity projects. There is no indication that any of these issues will become significantly less contentious. At best, the two sides hope to contain the destructive potential of each disagreement without ending the détente.

Even though Japan shows growing willingness to be involved with China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the intention is not to abet Chinese diplomacy but to counter it by boosting Japan’s own soft power in South-East Asia and beyond. The point, Abe’s lieutenants insist, is to show the region it does not have to be dominated by China. The alternative is an open, rules-based and perhaps even democratic order, in which economies are shaped by markets, not mercantilism. Japan believes it plays the responsible international steward.

While cooperating with China to safeguard free trade and multilateralism, Japan’s priority is trilateral coordination with the United States and Europe. Japanese Trade Minister Hiroshige Seko recently joined the United States and European Union in signing a statement of concern addressing the “non market-oriented policies and practices of third countries.” Coordinated countermeasures against China may follow.

On the other hand, Abe and Trump still maintain close cooperation on security matters. The North Korea issue helped focus the alliance’s attention and provided an opportunity for Trump to assure Japan that the US was behind Japan “100 per cent.” Abe and Trump both supported the “maximum pressure” strategy against North Korea, working hard to build international support for United Nations sanctions.

The two allies also share common interest in maintaining the freedom of navigation over the South China Sea. Japan’s Self-Defense Force’s disclosure of its recent anti-submarine-warfare exercise accords with a central tenet of the Japanese strategy in the South China Sea: maintaining a naval balance of power with China. The exercise involved the helicopter carrier Kaga, an Oyashio-class submarine, and two destroyers. Politically, these exercises are designed to signal that Japan will never recognize Beijing’s so-called nine-dash line as the border delimiting China’s internal waters.

To countervail China’s Belt and Road Initiative, the Trump administration has proposed its own Free and Open Indo-Pacific Area, embracing the US, Australia, Japan and India, which is based largely upon propagating a kind of US-led free enterprise business model as a counter to China’s state-led model. Tokyo’s stance until now has been to actively support the US Indo-Pacific strategy with its proposed Asia-Africa Growth Corridor (AAIG), which would involve Japan and India leading a kind of mini-BRI initiative. Almost immediately after wrapping up his China visit, Abe is hosting Indian Prime Minister Modi at his private villa, a rare treatment reserved only for guest of highest regards, last time so-called Villa Diplomacy was carried out when former US president Reagan visited Japan in 1983. 

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