Sino-Japanese Rapprochement in 2018?

Chinese surveillance ships sail in waters near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in China in the East China Sea

For much of 2017, President Trump’s foreign policy, the Sino-Indian military stand-off in the Himalayas, and North Korea’s (DPRK) nuclear program have dominated discourse on security issues in East Asia. Comparatively little attention has been paid to the complex relationship between Japan and China, despite the fact that it greatly affects regional and even global developments.

Fraught Relations

The issue of sovereignty in the South China Sea, through which $3tn of trade flows every year, is of vital interest to both the world’s second and third largest economies, those of China and Japan respectively, whose collective annual trade is in the hundreds of billions. Recent months have seen speculation over Sino-Japanese rapprochement in 2018, but given the range of interests involved, such rapprochement may prove difficult.

Sino-Japanese relations have been rocky for centuries. During the twentieth century, strategic rivalry and outright warfare set the stage for a history of violence that dyes bilateral relations to this day. Memories of atrocities during the Sino-Japanese War have contributed to the growth of the politics of apology, in which competing historiographies of victim and perpetrator have gained contemporary political significance.

Another legacy of the conflict is the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, (see our previous blog post) which have become an impediment to the improvement of bilateral relations. When in 2012 the Japanese government moved to acquire the islands (three of which were privately owned), in a move officially made to prevent the further politicization of the islands dispute within Japanese domestic politics, the Chinese government accused Tokyo of disrupting the status-quo. The result was an escalation of the conflict, with both sides suspending top-level meetings and intensifying provocations at sea. Such clashes have come to draw in civilian fishermen, coastguards of Japan and the PRC, as well as the Taiwanese government which also has claims to the island group.

A Window for Cooperation?

Nevertheless, contact between the two great Asian powers has continued in spite of tensions. A cordial, if unofficial, meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in November 2017 bore indications of an improvement in bilateral relations in 2018. Shortly after, at the 80th commemoration of the Nanjing massacre in December 2017, President Xi notably refrained from speaking and Yu Zhensheng, head of China’s top advisory body called for cooperation and peace with Japan. This stood in stark contrast to earlier condemnations of Japanese aggression, which appeals to nationalist rhetoric in China.

Also in December 2017, LDP Secretary-General Toshihiro Nikai visited China, where  Foreign Minister Wang Yi, known for usually taking a tough stance on Japan, called for cooperation with Tokyo in de-escalating the situation on the Korean Peninsula. This sparked hope for reciprocal visits by Abe and Xi, as well as for the potential attendance of Premier Li Keqiang at the China-Japan-ROK trilateral summit. Importantly 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of China’s Open Door Policy, and the subsequent China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which coincides with Beijing’s efforts to reinvent China’s role on the global stage as part of the New Era espoused by President Xi.

Beyond foreign policy, 2018 may also see enhanced Sino-Japanese cooperation in the economic sphere. While in Beijing, Nikai discussed the easing of Chinese import restrictions on Japanese foods, and indicated willingness to cooperate with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). Discussions are currently underway for Japan joining the China-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) under certain conditions, despite Tokyo’s earlier hostility. Japan is also party to China’s Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a proposed trading bloc of 16 countries. More cooperation with China is no doubt in the interest of the Keidanren, Japan’s business lobby, which is keen to engage in infrastructure-development projects with China. On the other hand, China stands to benefit from greater access to Japanese Research and Development, as part of its efforts to become a technological powerhouse. Chinese reasoning also contends that Japanese cooperation in infrastructure development in third countries may assuage suspicions that Chinese development projects serve the political interests of Beijing.

Geo-strategic and Domestic Sparring   

Both Abe and Xi have similar visions for their leadership tenures; namely enhancing their role as dominant regional players. Indeed, this overarching goal is likely to undermine potential Sino-Japanese cooperation with the BRI, AIIB, and RCEP. While meeting with Xi at the APEC summit in Da Nang, Abe also met with leaders of the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries, a free-trade bloc partially intended to check Chinese influence in the region. Since President Trump’s withdrawal from the TPP, Japan has led the way in negotiations for a reformed agreement among the 11 remaining countries. Tokyo hopes to conclude and sign a new agreement by March.

Additionally, Japan is cooperating with India to potentially create an Asia-Africa Growth Corridor to counter the China’s BRI. Tokyo’s engagement with countries along the ‘New Silk Road’ and its promotion of a ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ present direct challenges to Chinese geopolitical and economic aims.

In the security sphere, the ‘Quad’ security diamond of Japan, India, Australia, and the United States has elicited Chinese suspicion of a containment strategy. Meanwhile, Chinese patrols around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands have done little to put Japanese concerns to rest.

The Path Ahead

These circumstances have conspired to generate a situation in which the level of suspicion between Japan and China is high, while the level of trust remains low. It should also not be forgotten that historical animosities remain a potent domestic political force, with leaders in both countries having to take the population’s resentments and historical grievances into account. According to polls, less than 10% of Chinese and Japanese citizens view each other’s country favorably. However, both President Xi and Prime Minister Abe’s political agenda stand to benefit from a reduction in tensions, at least in the short term, and both leaders presently enjoy relatively stable political mandates. This begs the questions: Can enough political capital be mustered to overcome key differences for the sake of future stability? Or will the stage be set for further animosity going forward?