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Maintaining momentum in Japan–China relations

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Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono (L) shakes hands with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi before their meeting at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse in Beijing, China on 28 January 2018. (Photo: Reuters/Andy Wong).

In Brief

In January 2018, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited China, meeting officials including his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi to confirm the importance of reciprocal visits by their leaders. Although the bilateral relationship has moved on from its lowest points in the 2010s, no state visits have taken place since 2011.


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In 2017, the Abe administration shifted its policy towards China. The Japanese government sent a delegation to China’s May 2017 Belt and Road Forum, where Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of Japan’s governing Liberal Democratic Party, met Chinese President Xi Jinping and handed him a personal letter from Abe. Chinese State Councillor Yang Jiechi then visited Japan to meet with various high-level officials, including Abe. By June 2017 Abe had made clear that Japan would join the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) under certain conditions.

Since then, Japan and China have been working to further improve their bilateral relations. On 11 November 2017, Abe met Xi on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Vietnam and proposed mutual state visits in 2018. Though Xi did not directly accept Abe’s proposal, he did say that the stable development of Japan–China relations will benefit both countries.

What is driving the improvement of relations between Japan and China now?

The biggest factor is the changing international relations of the region. Tensions on the Korean Peninsula and the uncertainties of the Trump administration’s foreign policies have been key. For Tokyo, cooperation with China is fundamental to coordinating effective pressure on North Korea. And with Japan–South Korea relations deteriorating over the ‘comfort women’ issue, Japan has given priority to rapprochement with China.

For Beijing, relations with Japan have gained momentum on the grounds that the United States has strengthened its critiques of China as a strategic competitor. As the possibility emerges of negotiations between the United States and North Korea brokered by South Korea, the Japan–China relationship has become increasingly important for both Japan and China.

The second factor is the stability of political leadership in both countries. Xi Jinping’s newly solidified power base means he has more political capital and can take more initiative to improve relations with Japan. Similarly, Abe has led the government for more than five years, and Abe can contest the Liberal Democratic Party leadership for a third term in September 2018.

The third factor is the potential for economic cooperation. Although Japanese investment in China is decreasing, about half of all Japanese firms operating overseas still operate in China. The Chinese government cannot overlook this, especially while China’s economic growth continues to slow. China also wants Japan to participate in the BRI. This should not be too difficult: Japan may well see economic benefits from Japanese companies supporting Chinese BRI projects in third countries.

These factors should ensure stable and positive relations for the time being. But both governments must address sensitive issues between the two countries if they want to stabilise the relationship in the longer term.

Military tension around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea is the biggest issue. Since September 2012, Chinese government vessels have sailed in Japan’s contiguous zone around the islands almost daily and have repeatedly intruded into Japan’s territorial sea. On 11 January 2018, just before Kono visited China, Chinese nuclear submarines sailed through this contiguous zone, which caused an uproar in Japan. It is imperative that Japan and China build confidence and implement procedures like an air and sea liaison mechanism in order to prevent such military tension from developing into conflict.

Differences in Japan’s and China’s visions of regional order is also a potential source of instability. Abe’s ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’ vision is a geopolitical counterbalance to China’s growing influence and presence in Eurasia and Africa through the BRI. Although Abe has already expressed his desire to cooperate with the BRI, Japan has attached numerous conditions to this cooperation. China remains wary of Abe’s Indo-Pacific idea and perceives it as a containment strategy against China.

Taiwan presents another issue. Cross-Strait relations grew tense again after Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen came to office in May 2016. China has strengthened its pressure on Tsai to accept the so-called ‘1992 Consensus’, which constitutes a verbal agreement on the subject of the ‘One China principle’. Meanwhile, Japan seeks to strengthen its ties with Taiwan under the Tsai administration, which the Chinese government has officially protested.

Japan–China relations seem back on track for mutual state visits in 2018 or 2019, but the future of the bilateral relationship will not be without significant challenges.

Madoka Fukuda is Professor in the Department of Global Politics, Hosei University.

One response to “Maintaining momentum in Japan–China relations”

  1. I’m extremely skeptical of the process carrying forward. Japan and China are simply too close to be in different alliances or security arrangements if a normal relationship is what they are after. Yes there are other issues holding back ties, but this one is the most significant and costly factor holding back ties.

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