October 24, 2018
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will pay an official visit to China from Thursday to Saturday — the first official visit to China by a Japanese prime minister in seven years.
The visit will mark the historic milestone of the 40th anniversary of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty, signaling a turning point in the tortuous bilateral relationship.
The treaty entered into effect on Oct. 23, 1979.
“It would be acceptable even if [Abe’s visit] does not lead to an improvement in Japan-China relations as what we aim [to achieve] is stabilization” of the ties, a senior Japanese government official said.
The relationship rapidly cooled following Japan’s nationalization of some of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in September 2012. China strongly reacted to Abe’s sudden visit to Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. Since then, the two nations have had one confrontational situation after another.
By mentioning “stabilization,” the senior official apparently meant restoring the steady ties that existed in 2012 and earlier.
A turning point came in Hamburg, Germany, on July 8, 2017, at a meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the summit meeting of the Group of 20 major economies in the German city. Political issues must be solved one by one while squarely facing the past, Xi told Abe at the meeting.
But doing these must not hinder the development of bilateral economic ties, the Chinese leader added, in an apparent reference to separating politics from economics. Xi gave “a message to call for unconditionally developing bilateral economic ties,” said a diplomatic source knowledgeable about Japan-China relations.
In response, Abe gave Xi a positive view of the Belt and Road Initiative, a policy Beijing announced in 2013 to create a mega economic zone, by saying: “It is a vision with potential. We want to cooperate [with China].”
In May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid an official visit to Japan, the first such visit in eight years by a Chinese premier. On the trip, Li consistently sent friendly signals to Japan.
China’s range of concerns
The change in bilateral relations is attributable mainly to the Chinese side. In recent years, Southeast Asian countries and other nations have piled up complaints about China’s high-handed approach to economic assistance in relation to the Belt and Road Initiative. Infrastructure projects have been stalled one after another as China does not take into consideration its counterparts’ repayment capability. In 2018, pro-China ruling parties lost elections in such countries as Malaysia and the Indian Ocean island country of Maldives.
Furthermore, China has been involved in a confrontation with the United States, which could be called a trade war. With the international environment surrounding China becoming harsher year by year, the improvement of its relations with Japan came to bear more significance.
Domestic situations in China also had an impact on the change. In the meeting of the National People’s Congress — China’s national legislature — in March this year, the constitutional provision that limited the state’s president to two terms totaling 10 years was deleted, making it possible for Xi to continue eternally in the post of the president.
A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, “Xi’s power base has been stabilized and thus he obtained a free hand in diplomatic relations with Japan.”
On Friday during Abe’s visit, a forum will be held about infrastructure projects in third-party countries, such as Asian and African countries, which are included in the Belt and Road Initiative. The forum will be coorganized by Japanese and Chinese governments and private companies. The Chinese side likely intends to make the forum a place where China provides the participating countries with a view that China and Japan are in step in terms of the infrastructure projects.
Security still issue for Tokyo
Under such circumstances, however, Japan cannot wave away concern over its security relationship with China.
According to the Japan Coast Guard, the number of intrusion by Chinese government vessels into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkakus in 2018 was 18 as of Sunday. Japan has protested these Chinese activities each time it detected the intrusion.
China continues to make artificial islands its military foothold in the South China Sea in spite of opposition from Southeast Asian countries.
The difference in the sense of values between Japan and China is also clear.
At a conference to promote exchange between Japanese and Chinese ruling parties in Toyako, Hokkaido, on Oct. 10, Song Tao, head of the Chinese Communist Party’s international affairs department, said that ruling parties of both countries urge the media to report the truth and have the media correct misinformation.
Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, who participated in the conference, said: “Freedom of the press is the most basic. It’s quite evident.”
Nevertheless, the Abe administration has launched efforts for the improvement of bilateral relations, seeing many advantageous points associated with it. A senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said: “In diplomacy, there are factors [like those] seen in the Othello board game. If the Japan-China relationship changes from that of confrontation to improvement, the situation surrounding the Northeast Asia will also change.”
For Abe, whose term of office as president of the LDP will expire in three years, the improvement of Japan-China relations is an indispensable element to the realization of his own diplomatic legacy, including relations with Russia and North Korea.
It is highly likely that Xi will visit Japan next year on the occasions of the G20 meeting and other events in Japan. There is an influential view within Tokyo that the next year is an opportunity for the improvement of the bilateral relations.
Even while a great difference in positions on security and other issues persists, Japan and China are shortening the distance between them by putting importance on their own actual benefits in the economic and diplomatic sectors.