Japan is opening cover fire to help China defeat the United States. It’s not a real battle, off course. It’s a trade skirmish being fought at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum.

For decades, Japan has taken pains to avoid being caught in the cross fire between China and the U.S. in political and military disputes. The U.S. is by far Japan’s most important ally, while communist-ruled China is a neighbor with a population of nearly 1.3 billion.

Japan has stayed out of the latest spat between Washington and Beijing — over the recent collision of an American spy plane and a Chinese jet fighter. Tokyo simply expresses hope for an early, peaceful settlement to the dispute, which has further strained Sino-U.S. relations.

But when it comes to economic and trade disputes, Japan does not hesitate to take sides.

As China rapidly ascends as a global economic power, Japan is becoming much less tolerant toward its neighbor on bilateral economic and trade ties. China is the world’s seventh-largest economy in terms of gross domestic product.

After many years of trade disputes with the U.S., Japan faces a potentially serious trade row with the world’s most populous nation, in which Tokyo has threatened to impose “safeguard” curbs on some farm and textile imports from China.

But in the lead up to the next 21-member APEC summit in Shanghai in October, China is finding an ally in Japan over the launch of so-called individual action plans, or IAPs, on economic and technical cooperation.

APEC — a multilateral forum set up in 1989 to strengthen economic ties among the Pacific Rim countries — works to promote both free trade and investment, as well as economic and technical cooperation between industrialized and developing members.

Individual action plans to ease the flow of trade and investment among APEC economies were agreed upon at the 1996 summit in the Philippines.

But no agreement has been reached on launching IAPs on economic and technical cooperation. At their last summit in Brunei in November, leaders simply agreed to consider these in the future.

“China, host of the Shanghai summit, wants to make the event focused on economic and technical cooperation and insists on reaching an agreement to launch IAPs on the economic and technical cooperation front,” a senior Japanese trade official said.

“Japan, along with most other developing APEC members, is backing China’s stance,” the official said on condition of anonymity. “But the U.S. and other industrialized members are either opposed to or reluctant about launching IAPs on economic and technical cooperation.”

APEC has largely fallen under the sway of the U.S. since then President Bill Clinton hosted the first summit in Seattle in 1993.

At the urging of the U.S., APEC leaders set a goal at the 1994 summit in Bogor, Indonesia, of liberalizing trade and investment among APEC countries by 2010 for industrialized members and by 2020 for developing members.

But APEC’s credibility as a vehicle for the liberalization of global trade has been significantly tarnished following the 1997-1998 crisis in the region.

This is partly because some developing members have backpedaled on liberalization commitments and partly because APEC largely returned to its focus on economic and technical cooperation.

“The U.S. and other industrialized APEC members are opposed to launching IAPs on the economic and technical cooperation because they fear that APEC’s focus might further shift to such cooperation and away from trade and investment liberalization,” a senior Japanese government official said.

Senior government officials of APEC nations met earlier this year — and will hold two more meetings — to prepare for the coming Shanghai summit.

Shanghai is a showcase for China’s free-market reforms that were introduced in the late 1970s at the behest of the late paramount leader Deng Xiaoping.

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