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Rising trade war with U.S. the mere ‘last push’ for Japan and China to improve ties, but officials still cautious

by Reiji Yoshida

Staff Writer

On Wednesday in Beijing, Hiroaki Nakanishi, the head of Keidanren, Japan’s most powerful business lobby, met with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang at the Great Hall of the People.

Nakanishi and Li agreed to promote free trade and enhance cooperation in technology and innovation during the meeting.

However, the real value of the meeting is probably more in its political symbolism.

In August and September alone, the top leaders of Fujian and Sichuan provinces, as well as Beijing, visited Japan. A senior Japanese official says Nakanishi’s visit, and those by Chinese officials, symbolize improving Sino-Japanese ties, which have been seriously damaged since a territorial dispute over the East China Sea’s Senkaku Islands, known in China as the Diaoyu, flared up in fall 2012.

“The Japan-China relationship has been reinvigorated in all areas over the past six months, expanding the horizon of Japan-China cooperation,” Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Wednesday at the outset of a 40-minute talk with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of an economic forum in Vladivostok in Russia’s Far East.

Later the same day, Abe and Xi jointly announced that Beijing welcomes Abe’s visit to China next month, which will cap long-term bilateral efforts to improve the relationship between the two Asian giants.

Some experts say the recent trade war between the U.S. and China has prompted Beijing to improve ties with Japan, as both Beijing and Tokyo oppose the protectionist trade policy of U.S. President Donald Trump.

But Abe and Xi have actually long understood the need to improve bilateral ties for their own national interests, and rising trade tensions were probably the mere “last push” for Beijing to approach Japan more closely, according to Yuji Miyamoto, former Japanese ambassador to China.

“For example, without improving its ties with Japan, China won’t be able to stabilize its relationship with ASEAN countries. For Japan, diplomatic options would be greatly expanded if it improves its relationship with China,” Miyamoto said in a phone interview with The Japan Times.

In fact, Japan desperately needs the cooperation of China if North Korea is to abandon its nuclear and ballistic missile programs.

Japanese firms meanwhile need a stable business environment in China, as companies have heavily invested in the world’s second largest economy.

“In China, politics and economy are fully integrated as one. If politics is not good, economic ties won’t move, either,” said another key Japanese Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo.

Thus, Abe has been urged by Japanese business leaders to improve Japan-China relations, the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Akio Takahara, a China expert and professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, pointed out how the domestic political situations of both countries have allowed Abe and Xi to now improve their political ties.

For example, Xi has already firmly cemented his power base within Chinese politics and few can oppose his moves toward improving ties with Japan, Takahara said. In March, China scrapped presidential term limits, allowing Xi to rule indefinitely

“Xi’s power is so stable that now he can advocate policies friendly toward Japan,” he said.

The professor also pointed out that historically Beijing has often tried to improve relations with Tokyo when its ties withWashington deteriorated. The counter-balancing pattern is repeating itself right now, he said.

In fact, during the meeting with Nakanishi, Li suggested that China and Japan should form a united front against protectionism, alluding to Trump’s trade strategy of attacking economic competitors, including China and Japan.

“As China and Japan are two of the world’s major economies, they have the responsibility to jointly oppose unilateralism and protectionism and maintain multilateralism and free trade,” Xinhua News Agency reported the Chinese premier as saying Thursday.

Another key senior Foreign Ministry official in Tokyo also said rising trade tensions with the U.S. may be a factor in China’s move to improve ties with other countries, but it’s unclear how long Beijing will maintain such a charm offensive.

“Strategically, the biggest issue now for China is the U.S., so Beijing doesn’t want to expand its battlefront with other countries,” the official said.

“That’s why China is now smiling toward the EU, Southeast Asian countries and Japan. But you can’t guarantee how long it will continue,” the official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The official also pointed out that China hasn’t changed many of its diplomatic positions yet, despite its recent charm offensive.

For example, China has still regularly sent its coast guard ships around the Senkaku Islands and maintained its territorial claim over much of the South China Sea.

Beijing has also protected state-run businesses and maintained what other countries see as barriers to trade and investment. Japan, the U.S. and European Union should jointly call for Beijing’s policy shift in such areas, the official said.

“It’d be a very superficial idea if you believe we should join hands with China just because we have some issues with the U.S.,” the official said.

“We should promote the Sino-Japanese relationship so that Japan will benefit, but we should keep urging the international community to address challenges that have been brought about by the rise of China,” the official said.

Before Abe took his first prime ministership in 2006, most experts had predicted the Sino-Japanese relationship would deteriorate as Abe, a once-frequent visitor to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which among others enshrines the souls of convicted Class-A war criminals from WWII, was believed to be a historic revisionist and nationalistic hawk.

But on the contrary, Abe staged a surprise visit to Beijing in October 2006, weeks after he was elected prime minister, and greatly improved bilateral relations and earned the reputation as a pragmatic diplomatist.

Later, the Sino-Japanese relationship dramatically worsened due to the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands in September 2012, when Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party was in the opposition camp.

The dispute led to a number of large-scale anti-Japan riots in China the same year, badly damaging Japanese businesses there and leaving Japanese investors traumatized.