How did Abe’s meeting with Putin in Vladivostok contribute to a breakthrough in relations? How are growing tensions over the South China Sea (and divisiveness within ASEAN) and the North Korean nuclear threat impacting Japan? How are relations with South Korea seen now that payment to the “comfort women” fund has been authorized? In the late summer of 2016, we find answers to such queries.
The global scene left Japanese in a doubtful mood as deepening crises in East Asia added to uncertainty. Brexit and developments elsewhere raised fear of a backlash against globalization, undermining the post Cold War free market order. The G7 and trans-Atlantic alliance were weakened, while Russia benefitted, said Hosoya Yuichi in the July 25 Yomiuri. Kitaoka Shinichi in the July 31 Yomiuri commented on the murder of 7 Japanese in Bangladesh, where they had been inspecting as consultants for JICA subway construction plans. Since Japan is being targeted by ISIS, it has kept its youth corps just in the capital area and many have not been sent abroad, but JICA remains intent on assisting developing countries, he explained. It rescues its citizens in places such as Sudan, despite lacking transport capacity, while it is calling for upgrading the role of Japan’s PKO troops in such overseas, emergency missions.
Japanese voices sought at the late July ARF meetings statements on the South China Sea and the Korean Peninsula, citing the rising threat levels and resolute responses. Yet, with Laos chairing the meetings and Cambodia in the pocket of China as well as with China’s fierce resistance to the desired response, Japanese had no hope of agreement. China’s responses to the THAAD deployment decision and also the arbitration court ruling were seen as nothing less than a frontal challenge to the international order, and there was concern that after the G20 summit China would become more aggressive. Japanese also had doubts about states that may be swayed by Chinese economic largesse, such as the Philippines in an Asahi August 12 article. Yet, amid the bad news, coverage of bilateral ties to Russia was distinctly hopeful.
A July Chuokoron article by Yamauchi Masayuki and Sato Masaru ranged from North Korea to Trump—two dangers—, while stressing Japan-Russia relations—a growing opportunity. Cooperation between North Korea and ISIS, including the appeal of constructing underground cities, was on their minds, as was ISIS infiltration into South Korea in the guise of tourists easily able to penetrate due to widening income inequality and the influence of Marxism in South Korean society. As for Russia, they found different angles at the G7 summit for viewing Ukraine, finding room for Abe’s, who is praised for his realistic approach looking ahead to 21st century Japan-Russia relations. Sato envisioned a new agreement when Putin visits Japan this fall. One sign of this is the big shift in Japan’s language from demanding the “return” of the islands to calling for the “transfer” of them. Russia seeks language limited to “giving” Japan two islands. Sato seeks to make clear the changing power balance between the two countries. As for Trump, he is seen as reflecting isolationism and “America first” accompanied by little interest in the outside world to the point that Japan and South Korea would be left outside America’s interests apart from payments they make to the United States. Sato sees continuity with Obama’s treatment of allies, making an Iran deal that caused distrust in Saudi Arabia, and poorly handling Russia and China. The disorder that would follow from recognizing Russia’s sphere of influence and giving China a free hand in the South China Sea would leave Japan, South Korea, and Germany in the lurch. The article paints a grim picture of what may await Japan, as it holds out hope for a Japan-Russia breakthrough that promises vital compensation.
In the August issue of Toa,Hirose Yoko updated the state of Sino-Russian relations after the SCO meetings in Tashkent and, just a few days later, Putin’s meeting again with Xi in Beijing. While offering ample evidence for the continuation of the Sino-Russian “honeymoon,” the author stressed a concealed gap in warmth (difficult, complicated relations) that is described as Russia’s dilemma. The case for a close relationship is made through most of the article. Russia joined China in opposing the interference of non-involved countries, i.e., the United States (Japan too) in the South China Sea sovereignty question. Their two leaders agreed on strengthening the linkage of the EEU and OBOR (Putin even hinted at the possibility of forming an FTA between them) and with Mongolia’s leader on establishing two economic corridors through that country, as the notion of a “Greater Eurasian Partnership” was raised. There was agreement on expanded economic ties, including between banks as well as joint criticism of TPP as a big barrier to regional economic development. Closer cooperation was pledged on the South China Sea, North Korea, Syria, and anti-terror activities, especially in strong opposition to missile defense in Northeast Asia under the “pretext” of dealing with the North Korean question. Moreover, Hirose notes a shared historical consciousness, notably in constraining Japan and the United States. There was also agreement in opposing sanctions over Ukraine and on cooperation on media and cyberspace. Despite listing this broad array of closer Sino-Russian relations, her article ends by arguing that the differences are very meaningful too.
Hirose writes that one cannot say the honeymoon is smooth sailing. Russia cannot keep China from infringing on its sphere of influence. It seeks to protect this sphere and to avoid becoming a junior partner. Moreover, it continues to block formation of an SCO development bank, which China proposed in 2010, despite agreeing in 2015 to move toward it, and seeks to keep its leading position in the SCO and the lead role of Russian in this space. Further evidence of Sino-Russian trouble is their clash on how to proceed with the promised entry of India and Pakistan into the SCO, which was supposed to occur in 2016, despite China and Russia championing only one of these states each. Russia strongly supports Iran being approved for membership too, while China is not ready for the anti-American impact of that. In short, she sees a struggle over regional influence under way, posing a dilemma for Russia. Missing in this reportage on Russia’s anxieties is recognition that they have existed for a long time without blocking a strengthening relationship or that Japanese thinking that the dilemma can be resolved in Japan’s favor leads to over-optimism, not realism.
Nishitani Tomoaki in the September issue of Sekai looked at Japan-Russia talks from the standpoint of Moscow, asking what will be the fate of Abe’s Sochi approach. It has heightened expectations and trust in Japan among the Russian people, and it has drawn Russia to the negotiating table, Nishitani argues, but that is all. Linkage of economic cooperation and territorial talks is blocked by a nationalist wall erected by Putin in the 16 years he has been in office. Instead, resolving the territorial issue must be seen as the pathway to acting in unison within the big framework of East Asia. Making this possible is Russian disappointment in China, which has failed to deliver on many big projects, forcing Russia to turn inward for a bridge to Crimea, to wait with frustration for a high-speed rail line from Moscow to Kazan, and to notice no progress on the western Siberia natural gas pipeline. The sole exception is the Yamal peninsula LNG project, for which USD 12 billion in financing is coming. Arguing that Putin is well aware that China does not value Russia much, Nishitani insists that China is seen as a threat, whose Northeast region is pressing demographically and whose economy is now nine times the size of Russia’s. With European countries now seeking to relax the sanctions on Russia, in stages, after they expire at the end of January 2017, Nishitani looks to 2018 when Putin and Abe both face the end of their terms as a stimulus for reaching a deal (a year they have designated the year of Japan in Russia and of Russia in Japan), especially given Russia’s poor finances. In this outlook, a new era in bilateral relations would begin, Japan would keep the US alliance foundation, but Russia would play a huge role in limiting China. It must balance China, while for the United States relations with China are vital, readers are told. Thus, US-Japan interests do not appear to be in sync, even if Nishitani asserts that Washington will welcome Russia’s role in balancing China. This is the sort of coverage that is justifying concessions on the islands and more vigorous diplomacy.
An August 3 article in Yomiuri Shimbun explained that economics are not enough for a breakthrough in negotiations; security dialogue is also essential. After all, visitors to the islands on the visa-free program are now forbidden to take photographs and subject to closer scrutiny. The Russian navy regards the passage between Kunashiri and Etorofu as vital for exiting from the Sea of Okhotsk to the Pacific Ocean, and on Etorofu there is a battery of anti-air missiles plus 3,500 soldiers with a battery of anti-ship missiles soon to be placed there. Russians explain that the islands are being militarized due to the US rebalance to Asia. In this context, trust must be cultivated in the area of security, as concern grows that further militarization will make the return of the territory far off and that as long as the Japan-US alliance persists, talks will not progress. With the Arctic Sea route of new importance, the islands also acquire greater importance to Russia. In the same series of articles on the territorial issue, emphasis was put on the large sum of money Russia is spending on infrastructure in the border area, although its finances are more strained.
In the September Sekai, Japan’s virtual recognition of the waters around the four disputed islands as Russia’s EEZ is noted. Japan had accepted cuts of 70 percent in the main fishing catch in 2015 and a complete ban on this catch in 2016, observed Miyagoshi Yukiko. Russian inspectors are now present on Japanese ships as part of a strict control system. Nemuro residents are appealing for some quick resolution of the territorial question and blaming the Japanese government as stores across Japan are filling the gap with imports from Norway and Chile. Japan has lost its leverage.
The Abe-Putin meeting in Vladivostok on September 2 drew a rash of commentaries. Japanese were upbeat more than ever. Putin had declared that the most important need for national development is development of the Russian Far East. Abe had said that Putin’s dream is my dream and that Vladivostok would be the gateway between Eurasia and the Pacific, pledging to visit annually (Sankei, September 8). Earlier personnel decisions had raised hopes. Abe had named a minister with the Russian economic portfolio. Putin had named Anton Vaino, who is considered a Japan expert, the chief of staff of the presidential executive office. Vaino had lived in Japan with his father, who was the Soviet trade representative, studied Japanese at his university before being stationed at the Russian embassy, taken a year of language work at a Japanese university, and caught Putin’s eye when he served as Ambassador Panov’s private secretary, assisting with Putin’s visits in 2000 (Sankei, August 21). Optimists about relations took heart from this; pessimists, as Kimura Hiroshi, warned against rising hopes, fearing a deal without four islands (Sankei, August 31)., Hakamada wrote (Sankei, September 6), that optimism was unwarranted because Japan was in danger of totally negating decades of negotiations on this territorial issue, Russia needs Japan’s capital and technology, and must play the “Japan card” to get deals on gas, etc. with China. Yet, Russia is convinced that Japan needs it more than Russia needs Japan due to the nightmare of an anti-Japan Sino-Russian rapprochement, and with a strong sense of danger, he warns that public opinion in Russia is so set against returning the islands that Japan will not get any and will damage the Japan-US alliance. This foreboding was shared by some others expecting a two-island deal.
On September 24 Yomiuri finally confirmed that Abe would sign a peace treaty with the return of just two islands without acknowledging that this position was a return to the Irkutsk agreement 15 years earlier, which Japan had soon repudiated. Given the new interpretation of the Russian position that all islands are Russia’s as a result of the war, this agreement was now presented as a compromise by both sides. The article made it clear that Japan sought joint development of the islands, free travel of Japanese there, and talks ahead on the other two islands. There will be simultaneous intensification this fall of both peace treaty and economic talks with Putin’s visit to Abe’s hometown on December 15 the target date for a deal, Yomiuri continued. Both leaders emphasized the importance of a high level of trust to resolve the problems, and Putin hinted that Russia is ready to return two islands (Asahi, September 6). As Yomiuri editorialized on September 4, the military importance of the islands as seen in Russia limits prospects for optimism (i.e., four islands), but low energy prices are driving Russia to Japan, and, beyond economics, security cooperation is important. Japan must strive to seek the understanding of the United States and EU, it adds.
Japanese papers were split in coverage of the Abe-Putin summit on September 4-9. Asahi worried about the rule of law and the reaction of international society, given Russia’s recent behavior. Sankei stressed the risk in accepting illegality, damaging US relations, and dealing with Russia’s poor business environment. Yet, Yomiuri was reassured that Putin did not insist on Japan lifting the G7 sanctions and that Russia’s focus on development of its Far East would lead to a breakthrough on the territory. On September 9 it carried an interview with Suga Yoshihide, chief cabinet secretary, expecting progress on the islands. As before, Yomiuri optimism was in the forefront.
An August 3 Asahi Shimbun article on the move away from the North Korean border of US forces, which has just begun and will proceed through next year, described it as increasing access by these forces to areas away from the peninsula, especially the South China Sea. This offers more strategic flexibility and is in keeping with what began in 2011 as participation by these forces in exercises outside of Korea. The possibility, thus, exists, that Washington would ask Seoul to assist if there were a conflict in the South China Sea. With the decision to deploy THAAD, South Korea is being drawn into the US-Japan missile defense system, which China opposes, and is increasingly likely to have to choose in security either China or the United States.
The “comfort women” issue remains a major theme, notably on July 28-29 when the South Korean foundation began its operations and Japan’s transfer of money to it was to follow. Newspapers stressed the opposition in Korea to the foundation, with only 20-30 percent approving of the deal and some college students on July 28 trying to disrupt the opening ceremony. Tokyo Shimbun explained that after the Asian Women’s Fund in the 1990s had failed to attract many of the “comfort women,” this effort relies on a South Korean foundation to manage the funds. It warns, however, that an NGO in South Korea is planning to erect a new statue in front of the Japanese consulate in Pusan, which some Japanese connected to the government say would mean the end of the deal. Asahi Shimbun is clear about what is disturbing many South Koreans and why they are suspicious of Abe, while pressing for Japan, to the maximum extent, to fulfill the spirit of the agreement. It noted that at the ASEM meetings, Abe had sought a summit with Park, but Koreans had explained that if there were a meeting, it would have drawn attention to the issue of the statue that has not been removed. Also noted was the delay in creating the foundation and seeking Japan’s payment in order to not get entangled in Japan’s July elections. The July 29 paper also asserted that had there been on December 28 deal, cooperation after the North Korean nuclear test in January would not have been possible. They avoided the worst, but the two leaders have yet to succeed in suppressing opposition in their own country. Indicators of improved relations are not so obvious: in January to May the number of Japanese visiting South Korea rose only 1.9 percent from the previous year, and Korea reported that trade in the first half of the year actually fell by 9.7 percent. Yet, there is a high possibility that Park will make her first trip as president to Japan by year’s end for the trilateral summit with China and Japan, and some suggest that GSOMIA may finally be concluded at that time, permitting direct intelligence sharing. The article adds that after the G20 summit China is expected to revert to a hardline position toward Japan, in this way, perhaps, implying that Park will not, after all, have a trilateral excuse to go to Japan.
Yomiuri on July 29 carried articles, one by Kimura Kan, noting the strong opposition to removing the “comfort women” statue, and sought Japanese patience until the next ROK president can tackle this. In the meantime, Japan must keep its promises, not arousing Korean emotions. Koreans are prepared to move forward on other bilateral issues, separating them from the history theme. Given the economic slowdown and the North Korean threat, there should be more strategic talks and stress on the importance of good relations. On the same day Yomiuri carried an article indicating that support had slipped for Park at the end of last year when the agreement was reached to July from the 40 to the 30 percent level. One theme of the presidential election will be should Seoul demand renegotiating the agreement, as the opposition is demanding. Until the end of 2017 little movement can be expected on this issue ; Japan cannot be confident of how South Korea will later respond.
Yomiuri made it seem as if Abe had acted boldly to go forward with the transfer of funds before the statue had been removed despite opposition within the LDP and no fixed schedule for this. Yet, it was clear that to do otherwise would scuttle the deal. On July 29 Yomiuri praised the smooth advance in Japan-ROK security ties and the stoppage in the sort of criticisms the South Korean government had made before as well as an end to joining China on historical questions. Given the North’s repeated missile launches, including into Japan’s EEZ, South Korean ties are now appreciated.
On August 8 Sankei found a pattern of reversals in Japan-ROK relations, attributing them to Korean presidents losing popularity and turning to criticism of Japan. Lee Myung-bak chose the territorial issue, while Park did not even wait for a drop in popularity (fearful of being tarred by her father’s early career record in serving the Japanese) in focusing on the “comfort women” in her anti-Japanese posture. Yet, due to a troubled economy and the North Korean problem, she is seeking cooperation. The article describes China’s 2000-year empire on the peninsula, limiting military authority or foreign policy autonomy in return for economic stability. Japan had briefly in the Heian period accepted China’s tribute system too, but it was far away and did not receive economic benefits, ending the arrangement in 894, while later boosting local culture and economic vitality through decentralization. Korea lacked localism, and people distrusted the center; it turned to the great power to save it when in trouble. A comparison of history and culture is seen as key to South Korea.
On August 4 Yomiuri carried an article by Kubo Fumiaki on the importance for Abe’s new cabinet of stable diplomacy and strengthened alliances, praising the continued role of Kishida as foreign minister and his success in securing Obama’s visit to Hiroshima. While dialogue with China should continue, he appeals for further steps to work with international society to show that China’s maritime actions are not acceptable. Emphasis is placed on South Korea as Japan’s partner, which has shifted away from its earlier China policy, cooperated on Japan-US trilateralism, and agreed to the “comfort women” deal with Japan. Kubo sees this cabinet and support in the two houses of the Diet as giving Abe a strong base for compromising with Putin.
On August 12 Asahi noted Chinese pressure on South Korea, including refusal to issue commercial visas and blockage of economic and cultural activities, while serving very conveniently as North Korea’s big backer. Concluding that Northeast Asia is now destabilized by China and Russia, which insist that others are only using North Korea as a pretext, Asahi onlycan suggest more intense efforts to talk to China and Russia. Progressives in Japan are less blind to the challenge than those in South Korea, but they are not better able to countenance the realist choices now required.
The September issue of Toa painted a dismal picture of China’s response to THAAD, while covering the widening Sino-ROK split. It saw China drawing closer to North Korea, splitting the UN response to it, conducting a campaign to criticize South Korea, and retaliating in various ways economically, which, should added pressure be applied, would deal a harsh blow to the South Korean economy. China was calling on other states to sit by, less they be the cause of increased tension on the peninsula.
Japanese sources, such as the September Chuo Koron article by Kawashima Shin, concluded that China’s image was badly hurt by the July court decision and China’s response. They exposed China’s challenge to the global order, even as it asserts it is not opposing that order. It seeks to reconstruct the legitimacy of the CCP, as the economy slows. the article casts doubt on ASEAN’s ability to overcome China’s push for bilateral talks with Southeast Asian states to deal with the South China Sea issue.
Yomiuri explained that, since 2012, ASEAN has been stifled by pro-China states. For Japanese newspapers, the proposed statement of welcoming the court decision and respecting the legal and diplomatic process failed because China would rather flex its political, economic, and military muscle than support ASEAN unity. Not only is it succeeding in splitting ASEAN, it is fighting a battle against Japan and the United States, which are trying to limit China’s regional aggression. Yomiuri on July 26 did not seem optimistic about ASEAN, as China’s money used bilaterally leads the way.
In late July, at the time of the ARF meetings, Japanese papers differed somewhat in their response to China. Yomiuri editorialized (July 27) that despite Cambodia’s role in splitting ASEAN and blocking a joint statement, countries should be putting more pressure on China. Sankei that day called for Japan, the United States, Australia, and India to raise the cost for China, and for greater efforts by Japan, the United States, and others to support the ASEAN community, which China was undermining, and to strive to pressure China in international bodies, while it said that Asahi and Mainichi were calling for calm dialogue and just bilateral discussions. Asahi had written on July 27 that China’s real goal was to avoid a military confrontation with the United States, seeking relaxation of tensions before the G20 and allowing preparations for its fall 2017 congress. It also said that with Japan eager for the China-Japan-Korea trilateral to occur in 2016, it would hesitate to strongly criticize China. The real nature of the deepening conflict is obscured in such commentary, grasping for optimism.
On August 11, Yomiuri found that China was drawing closer to North Korea, breaking up the containment of the North in international society. Rather than pressure the North after THAAD deployment was announced, it prioritizes the North’s role in its own security. The article raises the possibility that if the North has a new missile test or nuclear test, China would not cooperate with Japan, the United States, and the ROK. It notes too that Sino-DPRK economic ties, apart from the sanctioned objects, are growing as seen in June trade levels and a tax-free purchase zone for buying North Korean agricultural products and half-day passport-free tours from North Korea. Asahi on August 11 saw China refusing to cooperate at the Security Council on North Korea following the THAAD decision. Whereas statements that criticized missile launches had been issued five times after the March resolution, no further statements are being issued. Moreover, according to a Chinese source, the article indicates that China has begun to return to its “blood alliance” with the North. THAAD means that Seoul is completely relying on Washington, and if Beijing backs Pyongyang, Seoul will increasingly tilt toward Washington, the article concludes.
On August 11 Tokyo Shimbun discussed the growing clash between Beijing and Seoul and Beijing’s attitude that the fact North Korea’s missile landed in Japan’s EEZ is not a problem. It charges that Beijing is using the anti-ballistic missile systems in Northeast Asia as a pretext. The article argues that the Sino-ROK clash will deepen.
On August 2 Sankei previewed the September issue of Seiron with a warning that in 5 years—on the 100th anniversary of the establishment of the CCP—it is possible that China will attack Japan and the United States will stay on the sidelines for fear it would be the target of nuclear bombs. The article argues that Japan must be aware of the danger and prepare modernized methods to stand and fight on the front line.
The August 12 Tokyo Shimbun pointed to a crossroads in Sino-Japanese relations. It suggested that after a collision in the open seas not far from the Senkaku Islands in which a Greek-registered boat collided with a Chinese fishing boat and Japan came to the rescue relations could improve. In the background was mention that China was seeking to avoid a confrontation in order for the G20 to succeed. Yet, the article indicated that China now views Japan’s role in the South China Sea as more against it than the US role. No reason was cited for the optimism conveyed in its headline.
With Inada Tomomi as the controversial new defense secretary, China’s official warnings against high officials visiting the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15 were unusual. The situation in the East China Sea was growing tenser, and Asahi reported on August 12 that China was calling on Japan to exercise restraint, lest the pre-G20 atmosphere worsen. Tokyo Shimbun on that same day faulted China for sending more ships to heighten tension in the area, as a response to Japan asking China to accept the court ruling on the South China Sea, escalating the challenge on both of the seas, while using its great power force and money as a weapon. Yet, the paper added that talks could turn the South China Sea into a “sea of peace,” as if China only needs to be persuaded that it will be able to win the trust of international society.
Will China agree to a China-Japan-Korea summit in Japan by year’s end? Asahi on June 15 said that it is awaiting the end of the G20 to decide, depending on Japan’s behavior. Rather than history being the focus, it is increasingly geopolitical issues that matter, as China is seen as strongly opposing closer Japanese security ties to Australia and India. Yet, as tensions over the East China Sea rose, pessimism was expressed in the August 11 Asahi, along with disappointment over China’s opposition at the Security Council to condemning North Korea for the August 3 missile launch into Japan’s EEZ. In the preceding days media coverage was intense on the intrusion of Chinese ships near the Senkaku Islands and on Japan’s diplomatic protests. Pessimism was spreading.
An article in the August issue of Toa examined the South China Sea question from the point of view of Sino-Vietnamese relations, arguing that China has decided to fiercely oppose Japanese involvement in this issue while taking a low-key posture to Vietnam, despite its similar opposition to China’s stance. Hirano Sato wrote that ties between the two countries have improved a lot, including “two corridors and one circle” as part of OBOR with routes from Guangxi and Yunnan provinces to north Vietnam important for economic relations. Hirano added that apart from the South China Sea issue there are no big contradictions between the two states and that China does not now have room to oppose Vietnam, but that their contradiction is not fading away. Even as Hanoi is improving ties with Washington, Beijing is keen on intensifying pressure on Tokyo but avoiding directly facing Hanoi at this time.
A second article in this issue by Koto Fumio focused on Vietnamese perceptions of China and Sino-Vietnamese relations, indicating that there is fear that the success of China in making ASEAN states dependent on it will damage the ASEAN community. Koto mentions two Chinese aims: 1) to advance the development of western China and go out to the south; and 2) to win the support of ASEAN in the event of China containing the United States and Japan. In response to China, Vietnam is striving for both military capabilities and diplomatic support. Stress is placed on closer ties to Russia, which supplies the bulk of the weapons. Mention is made of dissatisfaction within the elite on rapidly growing economic ties with China: Chinese companies offer low-level technology and do not hire a lot of Vietnamese. Yet, many workers from central Vietnam go to work in Laos, where Chinese investments have led to construction projects. Tourism is growing from China despite the 2014 anti-China demonstrations, some of which is related to shuttle cross-border trade. The article concludes that Vietnam recognizes that China’s growing influence across the three Indochinese countries is natural, but that it cannot, by itself, stop the disadvantages from China’s role and seeks to rely on international organizations to resolve issues.
Another article in the same journal took a wider view of China’s response to its loss in the court ruling on the South China Sea, which rejected the 9-dash line and EEZ claims as baseless. China responded with hostility, and on July 15-16 at the ASEM summit in Mongolia it was supported by Russia, Cambodia, and Laos, and others in blocking a joint resolution to resolve the dispute on the basis of the court resolution. The article explains that Medvedev told Li Keqiang there that Russia supports the principled position of China and opposes the internationalization of the dispute. It cites the campaign China has been conducting on this issue since March and new military operations by China in July. It also showcases Xi Jinping’s trips to Eastern European countries in March and June to extend the “Shanghai spirit” and the “One Belt, One Road,” noting his interest in Afghanistan but also repeating mention of the failure to bring India and Pakistan into the SCO in 2016. The tone on Sino-Russian relations—establishing a new framework of cooperation—is rather positive Shifting focus, Hamamoto Ryuichi observes that the meeting in Beijing for the AIIB stressed cooperation with international financial organizations and, by bringing “pro-China” former prime minister Hatoyama as advisor, showed that China hopes to add Japan to the list of member states, which now stands at 57. In contrast to efforts to forge a different international order through the SCO, the aim of the AIIB is treated as to win the cooperation of the existing international order.
The South China Sea again took center stage in reporting on the East Asian Summit on September 8-11. There were complexities in repeating the refrain that China is splitting ASEAN, even as Japan’s support for ASEAN was reaffirmed. Stress on the rule of law and on Japan-US support for it was commonplace, but so too was rising disappointment that ASEAN was, indeed, divided, and the Philippines could not be trusted (Yomiuri, September 9, 11). Yet, ASEAN’s dislike for friction entered this analysis too, leaving most countries as bystanders to the Japan-US clash with China. When a string of international conferences ended, it was feared that China’s time of self-restraint would be over and doubted that the Philippines would be prepared.
Japanese coverage of the meetings in Hangzhou in early September reflected deep concerns. Sankei underscored divisions below the surface: contrary to the economic focus of the G20 meetings and Xi Jinping’s intentions, attention was concentrated on the South China Sea with criticisms of China. On September 2, 5, and 6, it stressed the aims of China to establish a different international order, using the BRICS, which met unofficially in Hangzhou, to forge rules, and making the G20, not the G7, the key to influence in international society. Coverage of Sino-Russian relations showcased their growing closeness: shared historical consciousness pertinent to the Northern Territories, Russian support for China’s position on the Court of Arbitration decision and the inadmissibility of third parties interfering, and opposition to THAAD amid a tug-of-war over South Korea. Sankei headlined its coverage “Are China and Russia intensified their joint struggle with Japan?” It did take note of Putin’s September 5 call for concessions on territory by both sides, perhaps as its warning to Japanese.
Yomiuri carried a string of articles on the G20, seeing a battle taking place between the G7 and G20 and arguing that Xi is striving to deflect pressure against China and alter its international image for its position on the South China Sea. China’s aim is to challenge the US-led international order, and in his last chance Obama had failed to win China’s cooperation or get Xi to abide by his 2015 promise not to militarize the South China Sea, despite success on a climate accord. Optimism was missing too in its coverage of economics, as doubts were raised about whether China is acting in accord with its words, e.g. in dealing with “zombie enterprises” as world economic risk rises. Yomiuri links China’s plans to stifle discussion of the South China Sea issue to interference with free trade. It notes China’s effort to draw Russia into containing the United States in the South China Sea, adding that competition is growing over rules for managing the Indian and Pacific Oceans. It likewise reviewed the Xi-Park 50-minute meeting, saying that Xi faces a dilemma on North Korea mixing hard and soft statements, while being unmoved by Park’s explanations that THAAD is needed for South Korea’s self-defense. Finally, China’s economic slowdown is linked to its eagerness for OBOR, to put excess production to use, but this is not going according to plan, as in the slow advance of the high-speed railroad in Indonesia, for which Japan had vigorously competed.
Progressive papers put more weight on the climate accord, Sino-US cooperation, and Japan needing to work harder to deepen dialogue, given the importance of stability, as Asahi put it on September 5. It insisted that the situation is different from the Cold War due to greater interdependence, and on September 5 it appealed for China to be more conscious of tis great power role in its economic policies. The position of Tokyo Shimbun was positive about China fighting against protectionism and on September 6 alert to Xi’s claims that the G20 meetings were a great success. On September 6 it asserted that bilateral meetings to advance the goal of a CJK trilateral in the fall had to address the “comfort women” issue, China’s ships still encroaching on the Senkaku Islands, and South Korean missile defense. Chances for this trilateral to take place were being explored during the Hangzhou summit talks.