Five years ago it would have been almost inconceivable that the Prime Minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo, would be so warmly welcomed in China.
At that time, the Chinese state media portrayed Abe as a revisionist, who made light of Japan’s invasion and occupation of China and other Asian countries in the mid-20th century. They were scathing about his version of history and his nationalist politics. And they derided him for presiding over a stagnant economy, while their own was booming.
Yet when Abe visited Beijing this week for Japan’s first full-scale summit with China since 2011, he was hailed as an illustrious statesman. The trip reflects great progress on the diplomatic front – and remarkably, the stage is now set for Xi Jinping to make his first official visit to Tokyo next year, including a meeting with Japan’s Emperor.
Abe has often spoken of the Sino-Japanese relationship returning to a ‘normal’ state. For Japan, that typically means overlooking its ideological differences with China, and leaving the way open for trade. And as a sign of China’s economic importance to the Japanese, Abe was accompanied by a delegation of nearly a thousand executives, including many old China hands. Their focus was joint projects in so-called “third-country” markets, outside of China and Japan, including railways in Thailand, an oil refinery in Kazakhstan and a solar power facility in the United Arab Emirates.
These kinds of projects appeal to Japanese construction firms, banks and trading houses, which want to nurture their ties with partners in China. Indeed, this week’s goodwill coincides with the fortieth anniversary of the signing of a Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations. And of course, the more convivial mood contrasts sharply with the increasing tension between China and America.
In fact, the trade war is also having a negative effect on Japan, including tariffs on its steel exports to the US, creating problems for its automotive industry. That gives an opportunity to Chinese politicians, who have been testing out whether the Japanese feel let down by their suddenly unreliable ally. Their message goes like this: as the world’s second and third largest economies – with thousands of years of trading together in Asia – shouldn’t we work together more to reduce our reliance on the US? Trump has rejected multilateralism but China has not. And if Trump doesn’t want China to buy American cars, should we start buying more Japanese ones instead?
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang put it this way in a speech in Beijing in July: “China will continue its opening-up, relax market access and welcome foreign companies, including Japanese firms.”
Certainly, Trump’s more confrontational approach to trade is changing some of the calculations in Beijing – and perhaps it is opening up new possibilities for Tokyo too.
In the words of Professor Stephen Nagy from Tokyo International Christian University: “The shift in tone in Sino-Japanese relations has been chiefly driven by Beijing’s growing concern over Sino-US relations. Abe has stated on numerous occasions that Japan was ready to meet with Chinese counterparts at any time or place. But it wasn’t until Trump showed his determination to put enormous pressure on China through the trade war that China and Japan came to recognise how much they need each other in terms of trade.”
“The trade war with the US has encouraged China to seek new alliances in Asia. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that Chinese official media are friendly to Japan. I believe that the summit in Beijing provides an opportunity for the Chinese government to present its relationship with Japan in a good light,” agreed Li Wenqian from Hong Kong Baptist University.
One thing to look out for during the visit is what gets said about Xi’s signature policy the Belt and Road Inititiative (BRI).
Tokyo’s attitude towards the BRI has been cautious, seeing it as a challenger to the kind of infrastructure deals that the Japanese have struck in Asia for many years. But some Japanese companies are already discreetly on board. For example, second-hand cars from Japan are exported through China to central Asia and Europe.
Finding the words to describe Japan’s involvement in BRI has been a taxing task for diplomats, however, not least as Tokyo doesn’t want to be seen signing up too keenly for a programme in which China has the whiphand.
Aside from the semantics, many of the Japanese journalists and academics I have consulted also have reservations about the BRI as a business concept. They complain that the plan is poorly conceived and that its key themes are set by Communist Party committees, meaning that it is ideological, rather than profit-focused. “It looks like a way for the Chinese to waste their money,” I was told by a journalist who works for one of Japan’s best known business newspapers.
Within China, the view is that the BRI is open to all countries, although such a wide remit leaves ample room for interpretation. And while the overland routes in transport and trade have been less contentious, the Maritime Silk Road presents security challenges for Japan. The Chinese are developing ports in places like Myanmar, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Pakistan, where Japanese shipping lines wonder if they will be welcomed. China’s emerging presence at strategic points around the Indian Ocean gives Tokyo pause for geopolitical thought too.
Linked to that is Abe’s proposal to reform the Japanese constitution, paving the way for the Japanese Self Defence Force to transform into a fully fledged army, with the capacity to fight abroad in defence of allies, including the United States.
Abe has said the new approach is in response to threats from China and North Korea.
It also reflects concerns that the Americans, perhaps under the leadership of President Trump, could pull US troops out of bases in Japan, such as the island of Okinawa.
Of course, Chinese media has warned against the changes to the Japanese constitution, reminding its readers of the aggression of Japan’s Imperial Army in the first half of the last century.
However, pragmatically speaking, China’s leaders may well consider it a lesser evil to be faced by a Japanese army in the decades ahead if the quid-pro-quo is less American troops in Japan and a weakening of US military influence in the Western Pacific.
As Professor Robert Dujarric from Temple University in Japan explained to me, “In Tokyo, when you ask ‘What shall we do about China?’ the answer is always ‘What are the Americans are going to do about China?’ The real decisions are made in Washington. It is the Americans who run this show.”
Duncan Bartlett is the Editor of Asian Affairs magazine and a former BBC World Service Presenter. He also manages the news portal, Japan Story.
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