Asia’s two largest economies, China and Japan, pledged on Friday to a new era of cooperation rather than competition. What could yet prove a significant turnaround in bilateral relations follows Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing on Thursday and Friday — the first official trip there in seven years by a Japanese prime minister, driven by both sides’ frostier relations with the United States.
Amidst continuing bilateral tensions between Beijing and Tokyo, and a legacy of bitter memories of the Second World War, this underlines that a ‘Donald Trump-sized’ window of opportunity may nonetheless now exist for a significant thawing of Chinese-Japanese ties. For both Beijing and Tokyo have been disoriented by Washington in the last two years since Donald Trump was elected president. Especially following Vice-President Mike Pence’s hard-hitting speech against China earlier this month, in which he launched an unexpectedly stinging attack. As such, Beijing does not anticipate any significant warming of ties with Washington in the immediate future.
Meanwhile, despite the apparent personal warmth between Trump and Abe, Tokyo has been increasingly alarmed by the US administration’s continued undermining of the post-war economic and political order. This includes US sanctions against Tokyo, which threaten key national industries, including the automobile sector.
It is in this disruptive context that the talks take place between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Abe in their latest moves to rebuild relations, including through potentially shared agendas such as building economic infrastructure in Asia-Pacific. Yet, while the mood music is positive, for now at least, distrust and competition continue to define much of their relationship.
The sensitive and precarious nature of the trip was underlined by the changing start date. It was previously scheduled to commence last Tuesday — the 40th anniversary of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s visit to Japan in 1978 to sign the Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty. Yet, this was ultimately pushed back to last Thursday. This is, in part, because last Tuesday also marked the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration that paved the way for Japan to become an important player on the international stage.
For China, this is an understandably sensitive date given that the Meiji era saw the first war, 1894-1895, between the two nations, which saw Japan winning new territory. And it also, in turn, began a series of conflicts that were precursors to the 1931 Manchuria Incident and the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-1945.
This underlines that while bilateral relations are no longer in the ‘deep freeze’, there remains significant scope for tension and downside risk. Only last week, for instance, Tokyo submitted its latest official protest to Beijing after Chinese ships cruised around disputed islands in the region that are called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.
Going forward, the strategic dilemma over future relations is particularly acute for Abe as he seeks to navigate a domestic and foreign policy pathway through the economic and security minefield of retaining relations with Washington while seeking better bonds with Beijing. With Xi now set to be in power into the 2020s, this headache could become more acute for Tokyo if Trump is re-elected in 2020 too.
For Abe has to work out how best to respond to China’s growing influence in Asia-Pacific in the context of the uncertainties that Trump’s presidency has brought, including its departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership that has provided a new opportunity for Beijing to assert itself. In the current fluid geopolitical landscape, which is being constantly re-shaped as key countries manoeuvre for advantage, Abe had been seeking to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Trump’s agenda.
Thus, in a context whereby the White House appears to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the prime minister has been seeking to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country’s post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged. But this at the risk of a potentially significant inflaming of regional tensions with China. For instance, as part of a commitment to a Free and Open Indo-Pacific vision, which is shared by western countries, Tokyo received Beijing’s ire by conducting in September anti-submarine exercises in the South China Sea, including with destroyers from the Maritime Self-Defence Force.
Moving forward, one big, specific measure Abe wants to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan’s post-war constitution that constrains the country’s military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army, and has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1 per cent of gross domestic product.
To overturn this, Abe will need not just a two-thirds majority in the nation’s lower house, and upper house, but also a simple majority in a national referendum. Straight forward as that may sound, it could yet prove a major challenge, given the large body of Japanese public opinion that still values its post-war pacifism in the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.
Taken overall, Abe’s trip shows that while China and Japan are seeking in the Trump era to set aside disputes and focus more on common agendas, this comes amidst a legacy of distrust and competition. Going forward, the dilemmas are especially acute for Abe who, six years into his second prime ministership, is finding that Japan’s strategic choices are more complex, and narrower, as he navigates a pathway through the minefields that lie between Washington and Beijing.
Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.