While the United States and China have fallen into a phase of confrontation, Abe Shinzo made the first official visit to China by a Japanese prime minister in seven years. Rows of Japanese national flags displayed in Tiananmen Square symbolized the rapprochement between Japan and China. Although Abe only stayed in Beijing for a little more than 40 hours from the afternoon of the 25th of October to the morning of the 27th, he met the top three leaders of China, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Li Zhanshu, and dined separately with the top two. Over 400 business people accompanied the prime minister and signed 52 agreements with their Chinese counterparts on cooperating in third countries. There is no doubt that Japan-China relations are warming. But why is this so, and how far is this going to develop?
There are, arguably, four major factors that impact Japan-China relations: 1) domestic politics, 2) economics, 3) the international environment and security, and 4) people’s emotions, perceptions, and identity. I call it the four-factor analytical model. First, an important condition for China to introduce a friendly policy towards Japan was to have a strong leader with a solid power base. In September 2012 when China clashed with Japan over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, the Chinese official media embarked on an intensive anti-Japanese propaganda campaign. Rarely did they report anything positive about the Abe cabinet or Abe himself. For example, Abe proposed to Xi Jinping in November 2014 that he found cooperation with China on four points most important: to promote mutual understanding between the two nations; to deepen economic relations; to cooperate in the East China Sea; and to bring stability to the security environment in East Asia. This was completely ignored by the Chinese press in an atmosphere in which it was politically incorrect to show any understanding or friendliness to Japan. Only a strong leader can improve relations; Xi’s consolidation of power met that condition.
Abe also has a strong power base that is rare in Japanese politics. However, the strength of his position is irrelevant to the willingness of the government to improve relations with China. The Japanese public generally would like to have a leader who can firmly resist the challenges to their security, on the one hand, but can stabilise and develop Japan’s relations with its important neighbor, on the other. Japanese politicians are aware of such complex attitudes and attempt to engage China even when the public image of China is not good. This time, according to a public opinion poll conducted by Nikkei during and immediately after Abe’s visit to China, 71% of the Japanese appreciated it, while only 20% did not.
Second, China’s deepening economic woes push its leadership towards better relations with Japan. Macroeconomic policies for deleveraging and structural reform in the first half of the year have hit the national economy hard, as the trade frictions with the United States and economic sanctions deal a serious blow both materially and psychologically. Although there were adjustments in fiscal and financial policies in July, there is not much change in people’s sagging confidence in the economy. Stock prices and the value of the RMB have declined substantially, and the authorities are desperate to prevent capital flight. In this context, Japanese investments are precious, especially from the viewpoint of localities. After Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan in May, top leaders of localities such as Shanghai, Hubei, Sichuan, and Guangzhou city have come to Japan and held events to invite investments. Japanese firms, especially automobile manufacturers, are responding to signs of further deregulation and increasing their investments in China.
Third, the international environment, particularly the US factor, has played an important role in promoting Japan-China relations. It is a traditional pattern of Chinese diplomacy to turn to Japan and Europe when there is an issue in relations with the United States. In late 2013 when tensions rose over questions such as the East and the South China seas and cyberattacks, the Obama administration stopped using the phrase, a “New Model of Major Country Relations”—Xi Jinping’s signature policy towards the United States—and actively promoted the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). China’s response was to swing the pendulum of diplomatic policy from the US to Eurasia and start promoting the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to connect the Asian economic zone centered on China and the European economic zone centered on Germany. For Xi this swing in Chinese diplomacy from “America-first” to “Eurasia-first” was one factor in holding the first summit meeting with Abe in November 2014. Combined with the economic downturn, this time the dramatic deterioration in US relations constituted a decisive factor for China in bringing relations with Japan back on track.
For Abe, the anxiety about Japan-US economic relations could have been one factor in approaching China. Compared to Xi Jinping, however, the US factor was much less significant. It was in May 2017 that Abe sent the No. 2 leading figure of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known pro-China politician, Nikai Toshihiro, to Beijing to attend the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation. Abe not only told Nikai to hand his personal letter to Xi, but also sent his trusted aide, Imai Takaya to the forum. In the following month, Abe attended the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia and personally mentioned the possibility of cooperating with the BRI on condition that the projects are based on openness, transparency, economic viability, and the fiscal soundness of the partner state. This took place when US-China relations seemed to be going strong around their close cooperation in denuclearizing North Korea, and well before they started to show signs of derailment at the end of the year.
Fourth, Chinese perceptions of Japan are changing. According to the annual public opinion poll conducted by the Genron NPO and the China International Publishing Group, the percentage of Chinese who had a good image of Japan increased from 5.2 in 2013 (the first survey after the clash in 2012) to 11.3 in 2014, 21.4 in 2015, 21.7 in 2016, then shot up to 31.5 in 2017 and 42.2 in 2018. The percentage of those who had a bad image of Japan was 92.8 in 2013, which came down to 56.1 in 2018. This trend seems to be related to the increasing number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan, which was 7.4 million in 2017, recording an almost six-fold rise from 1.3 million in 2013. 7.4 million is still less than 0.6% of the Chinese population; however, it is widely believed that the positive image of Japanese society that the visitors transmit to the Chinese public through social networks is having a substantive impact.
On the Japanese side, the situation is not the same. Compared to 9.6 in 2013, the percentage of Japanese with a good image of China has only increased to 13.1 in 2018. The percentage of those with a bad image has only fallen a few points from 92.8 to 86.3. Why is there little improvement in the Japanese image of China? The survey tells us that the three major reasons why Japanese hold a negative image were: 1) China often intrudes into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands; 2) China’s actions are against international rules; and 3) China criticizes Japan over history issues, etc. These reasons tell us that the development of relations has its limits if there is no change in such behavior on the part of China. The key question is in the realm of security.
2018 happens to be the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Peace and Friendship Treaty between Japan and China. Both sides promised then that any conflict has to be solved by peaceful means and not by use of force or threat of the use of force, and that neither side would pursue hegemony. The intention of the Chinese was to include anti-hegemonism in the treaty to form a united front against the Soviet Union. But whenever the Japanese asked during the negotiations what hegemony meant, they would simply say, “You know what it means,” and there was never a clear answer. According to the Dictionary of Modern Chinese (Xiandai Hanyu Cidian), hegemony is a word used in international relations, and it means to manipulate or control other countries with strength (zai guoji guanxi shang yi shili caozong huo kongzhi bieguo de xingwei). In other words, you are hegemonic if you impose your will on others by strength. From the Japanese point of view, what China has been doing in the East and South China seas exemplifies none other than the pursuit of hegemony in the region.
Implementing the promise of not pursuing hegemony requires self-restraint. This was easier in the past, especially during the Cold War when the two countries had a common strategic goal to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. In addition, the balance of power was tilted towards Japan, an ally of the United States and also a country strictly restricted in its military activities by the peace constitution. However, China’s GDP is now more than 2.5 times that of Japan, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that China’s military budget in 2016 was already close to five times larger than Japan’s. Can China show self-restraint? Now this is the point in question. If China fails to do so, it will have disastrous consequences for Japan-China relations.
It is intriguing that Chinese leaders in the past have referred to the question of whether China would pursue the path of hegemony. In a conversation with a visiting American delegation in 1973, Zhou Enlai told a young visitor that China could embark on a hegemonic path, but if it did, she should oppose it and inform that generation of Chinese that Zhou Enlai had told her to do so. In a similar vein, Deng Xiaoping in 1978 told Sonoda Sunao, then foreign minister, that if China pursued hegemony, China itself should oppose it. What we sense now is that these leaders knew that, just like human beings elsewhere, the behavior of Chinese could change once they grew more powerful.
Were there any developments in the realm of security and confidence building as a result of Abe’s visit to China this time? Yes, Japan and China agreed to hold the first annual meeting between defense authorities on a maritime and air communication mechanism, which they had agreed to set up in May. They also welcomed the signing of the Japan-China Search and Rescue Agreement. In addition, both sides agreed on mutual visits by defense ministers and on exchanges and dialogue between the defense authorities, including mutual visits by naval vessels. On the 2008 agreement on the development of resources in the East China Sea, it was agreed that communication will be strengthened with a view to resuming soon the negotiations for its implementation.
These are positive steps in the right direction, and the agreement to designate 2019 as the Year for Promoting Youth Exchange between Japan and China is good. However, these are not enough to clear the distrust between the two sides. This is impossible if China keeps on sending coast guard vessels to the seas around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, although it is notable that the frequency of their entry into territorial waters has come down to once a month. As a next step in confidence building, Japan and China should implement successful joint ventures in third countries and demonstrate to their peoples and the world that the initiatives of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the BRI can coexist. Although each of the two initiatives has multiple facets, economic cooperation is a major aspect of both. Xi Jinping should mention the Free and Open Indo-Pacific when he visits Japan next year. If that happens, reciprocating what Abe has done with the BRI, Japan-China relations finally could be entering a new era.