China and Japan: Is an improved relationship in the works?

November 06, 2017 16:18
Shinzo Abe's electoral victory strengthens his hand in dealing with China. Photo: Reuters

Shinzo Abe’s stunning electoral victory last month won him a fourth term as Japan’s prime minister and raises his chances of becoming the longest-serving government leader since World War II. It also strengthens his hand in dealing with China, including his attempt to rekindle the relationship, which has been in the doldrums for years.

Weeks before the election, Abe paid a historic visit to the Chinese embassy to mark the 45th anniversary of the establishment of bilateral relations. While there, he laid out plans for high-level meetings, saying he was looking forward to hosting a trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea this year involving Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. “The next thing will be my turn to visit China,” he went on. “After my visit to China, I want President Xi to visit Japan.”

Since then, Abe has won a new term as prime minister. In China, President Xi Jinping consolidated his position and has been elevated within the party leadership. And China and South Korea have set aside their dispute over Seoul’s deployment of the Thaad missile system.

Thus, it would seem, the groundwork has been laid for a trilateral summit before the end of the year. But whether that will be followed by bilateral summits between Japan and China remains to be seen.

Chinese statements about Japan exhibit a hectoring tone. Foreign Minister Wang Yi, for instance, said that Japan must “take more actions that are conducive to bilateral cooperation” rather than “retreating one step after taking one step forward or even retreating two steps after taking one step forward”.

That may reflect a fundamental distrust of the Abe government, rooted in history. Ten years ago, when Abe first served as prime minister, he backed the idea of a quadrilateral security dialogue that linked Japan, the United States, Australia and India, but excluded China.

At the time, Abe announced a foreign policy based on “values-oriented diplomacy” and spoke of an “arc of freedom and prosperity” along the Pacific Rim. After Kevin Rudd became prime minister, Australia withdrew and the quadrilateral dialogue came to an end.

Now, however, the idea of a four-way strategic dialogue is being revived and Abe and the United States are talking about an “Indo-Pacific region” in order to specifically include India, which is not a Pacific nation.

The China Daily, an official English-language newspaper, published a commentary in late October saying that Foreign Minister Taro Kono had told Japanese media that “the aim is to counter China’s expanding influence as a result of its Belt and Road Initiative”.

But by doing so, the commentary said, “Japan is cutting itself off from the opportunities which the majority of countries have perceived in it.”

Japan’s strained ties with China, it said, are “a result of their territorial dispute and its concerns about having lost status because of China’s growing influence in the region”.

“Japan,” it said, “has been ramping up its efforts to oppose China in regional and international issues.”

But, this time, the US seems to be taking the idea more seriously than it did a decade ago. In fact, President Donald Trump is expected to deliver a major address of the American vision of a “free and open Indo-Pacific region” when he is in Vietnam for the APEC summit meeting.

However, a stronger and more confident China is acting like it is unconcerned. In fact, the Global Times, a nationalistic paper affiliated with the official People’s Daily, published a commentary that poked fun at all four countries involved, saying: “A US saddled with a tight budget, a financially indebted Japan, an Australia eyeing a free ride on China’s economic development and an India still struggling to become a developed country can hardly spare any effort to contribute to the public good.”

In the longer run, however, Abe’s electoral triumph is likely to be of great concern to China.

He is still determined to revise Japan’s American-drafted “peace” constitution and is now in a stronger position to do so. Currently, the constitution says that the Japanese people “forever renounce war as a sovereign right of the nation”.

The growing threat from North Korea, which has threatened to “sink” Japan and has sent missiles sailing over the Japanese islands, has provided rationale to the Abe administration’s assertion that Japan needs to have the right to defend itself.

China is opposed to changing the Japanese constitution. However, it may find it difficult to publicly object since it says that it does not interfere in the internal affairs of other countries.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.