It’s on everybody’s lips — the smoother relationship between China and Japan, the world’s second and third economies. The conventional explanation for this round of cozying up is that the common challenge of trade wars (some call it trade tensions and not on the same level as trade wars) is uniting the two Northeast Asian rivals. China has been battling the US in a series of trade wars that have threatened to impose tariffs on all Chinese-made export products headed for the US. There is also fear in Beijing of further restrictions of western technological transfers to China. Beijing is seeking talks with the US and asked for corridor diplomacy between the two top leaders in international meetings so that US President Donald J. Trump and Chinese President Xi Jinping can meet briefly to tone down the heat.
The US so far has rejected any meetings unless Beijing can prove its willingness to tackle the trade deficits between the US and China, dealing a blow to corridor diplomacy. Thus, Beijing has to hedge against this bilateral tension by using the charm diplomacy with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) member countries, South Korea and Japan. China has also indicated that it wishes to consider Comprehensive and Progressive agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) membership. Some in China and other countries had previously thought of the CPTPP’s predecessor, the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), as a scheme to encircle and exclude China. The phrase describing TPP as an “unsinkable aircraft carrier” when managing China came to the mind of hardcore realists. That phrase was not entirely picked up and implemented by mainstream media and/or commentators.
The CPTPP is currently led by countries like Australia and Japan as Trump left the TPP as one of his very first acts in order to fulfill his campaign promises. Japan and the rest of the remaining 11 countries decided to move ahead without the US after the latter withdrew from the preparations for the TPP. Japan is considered one of the staunchest supporters of the CPTPP while Beijing is considered one of the staunchest supporters for free trade in the major powers. Thus, in these ways, there is some convergence of interests. Beijing is hence keen to lobby Japan to look into potential membership of the CPTPP. The TPP and CPTPP have golden standards for multilateral trade agreements, especially in areas like labor rights, intellectual property rights (IPR), and human rights. Thus, it has the potential for signatories to aspire towards the highest standards of global trade. This may be complementary with Beijing’s own aspirations to upgrade its industries and move up the value chain. While doing so, it can upgrade the working conditions for its workers and also tackle other related concerns.
At the same time, Tokyo has supported the Beijing-initiated multilateral Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) and wants to accelerate its progress like many others in the region. Tokyo is also under some pressure from its closest ally — the US — to address trade imbalances. It was not exempted from tariffs unlike other US alliance network countries like South Korea or Canada. While remaining strongly allied with the US in every way, Japan also seeks to reach out for better overall relations with its large neighbor while looking into mutually beneficial ways of cooperation. Tokyo must also look into the interests, both economic and strategic, of its most important ally in the form of the US-Japan Alliance in place since the 1960s and forms the cornerstone of peace in the region.
On the Japanese side, they want to reset Sino-Japanese relations so that it can be free of the on-off tensions that has characterized the bilateral relations.
In the recent past, through Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) secretary general Toshihiko Nikai, the Japanese political establishment had hinted at the possibilities of possibly joining the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and also cooperate in the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) projects. The BRI is the most important foreign economic policy of the Xi administration. It has run into some issues of late in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, Myanmar, Pakistan, Sierra Leone, etc. Beijing is also keen to tap into Tokyo’s decades of experiences in managing loans, aid, and developmental projects as its BRI projects appear to meet some local challenges. There is much to learn from Japan’s decades-long experiences. This is where Japan can also value add to China’s experience in developmental cooperation with other countries in the world. Tokyo has also been helming the Asian Development Bank (ADB) for decades and has the expertise to manage aid, loans and funds for developing economies.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing in October 2018 and was received with a rare red-carpet welcome, complete with a guard of honor decked out in full ceremonial colors. In Northeast Asian culture, symbolisms are all-important in the high context political culture. The full colors connote the unmitigated welcome given to the Japanese Prime Minister — not just any Japanese PM but the longest-reigning one in recent memory. He was also given full audience to all members of the Chinese political elites. At one point, when PM Abe asked for a relaxation on Chinese food imports from Japan’s earthquake-stricken areas, he was given a non-committal response from Premier Li Keqiang but, in his meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the latter told PM Abe that he knew what to do. The unwritten protocol, non-spoken languages and subtle ways of expressions are all reflective of Northeast Asian political culture.
The Chinese appear to appreciate a strong Japanese leader. PM Abe has beaten predecessors like Yasuhiro Nakasone and Junichiro Koizumi for being the longest in power. Previously, the average tenure of a Japanese PM was only 9-12 months, and the conveyor belt (a name given by critics of the frequent changes in Prime Ministership) caused some challenges in sustaining the Sino-Japanese relationship. Some critics attributed the tensions between the two countries to the inexperienced opposition party in power from 2010 to 2013. PM Abe’s tenure commensurate well with the potentially lifetime tenure of the Chinese Presidency and Vice Presidency. In other words, there is continuity in policies and political mutual understanding. In fact, at some points in their careers, both were characterized as strongmen.
PM Abe had a good conversation with his counterpart, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. On the Japanese side, they want to reset Sino-Japanese relations so that it can be free of the on-off tensions that has characterized the bilateral relations, swinging sometimes almost like a pendulum. The meeting with President Xi was also less awkward compared to the ice-thawing phase a few years ago when the two leaders posed with each other with awkward frosty expressions in front of the international media. This time round, all was cordial. In fact, many observers had realized this round of positive Sino-Japanese relations much earlier on, when there were signs pointing at a restoration of relations, including discussions and agreement to set up maritime hotline to prevent accidental clashes at sea.
Tokyo is also applying pragmatic measures in its dealings with China, officially acknowledging it is no longer a donor country of aid to China and instead, it is now interacting with China as a partner. China is also responding to Tokyo’s importance as a storehouse of knowledge on economic regionalism and manager of developmental aid, honed over the last few decades. Beijing is also cognizant of the fact that Tokyo is a close ally and friend of the United States. In the end, the doves are keen to wind down temperatures on both economic and political conflicts.