With all the fanfare generated by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to Beijing later this week, perhaps the most significant aspect is that it is happening at all.
Despite both taking office around the same time in 2012, Abe and his Chinese President Xi Jinping have never visited each other’s countries for a formal bilateral summit, with all of their previous encounters taking place on the sidelines of international conferences.
But after six years, Abe will finally make the trek, paving the way for a reciprocal visit by Xi to Japan at some point in the future.
“We want to use this opportunity to create momentum for us to map out and promote mutual cooperation and communication in various areas and to elevate Japan-China relations to a new level,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said while announcing Abe’s visit to Beijing, which is scheduled to begin Thursday.
The meeting will likely be a cordial affair, with both sides eager to showcase the image of a rekindled friendship to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship’s signing.
But among the parties, China appears to be the more desperate of the two.
China views Japan as an increasingly important partner in countering a protectionist United States led by President Donald Trump — while also realizing it could use the opportunity to alienate Tokyo from its top ally, Washington.
The Chinese government, analysts say, also seeks at least a semblance of an endorsement by Japan of Xi’s trademark — and increasingly criticized — “Belt and Road” initiative. It is looking to hammer out details on joint infrastructure projects in hopes of trumpeting Japan’s participation in the development strategy.
The upcoming summit comes amid a gradual thaw in relations between the two Asian nations that had chilled in the wake of a territorial dispute that reignited in 2012 over the Japan-controlled, China-claimed Senkaku Islands, which Beijing calls the Diaoyu.
An annual survey this year jointly conducted by Japanese think tank Genron NPO and China International Publishing Group showed that the percentage of Chinese who have a “favorable” or “rather favorable” impression of Japan hit a record 42.2 percent, topping 40 percent for the first time since the poll was initiated in 2005.
It also found the percentage of Chinese who think Sino-Japanese relations are “important” or “rather important” rose to 74.0 percent from 68.7 percent last year, in what Yasushi Kudo, head of Genron NPO, said was a testament to Beijing’s growing interest in economic relations with Tokyo amid China’s ongoing trade war with the U.S.
Those trade frictions have taken a toll on the world’s second-largest economy.
The National Bureau of Statistics said Friday that China’s economy grew 6.5 percent in the third quarter from a year earlier, eking out its slowest quarterly growth level since 2009, months after the global financial crisis erupted.
Alarmed by Trump’s tougher-than-expected stance, Beijing has placed a greater emphasis on befriending Japan, scrambling to mend ties with what it views as its most important Asian neighbor, said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor of Sino-Japanese relations at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies.
“Amid the escalating trade war with the U.S., it has become a very urgent priority for China to strengthen economic ties with Japan,” Kawamura said.
At the upcoming summit, the two Asian powerhouses will seek to reach agreements on specifics concerning the economic cooperation they discussed during Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s May visit to Japan.
During that visit, Abe and Li agreed to take concrete steps toward fostering joint infrastructure projects in third countries involving public and private sector entities from the two nations. Among the projects floated by the two sides is the development of expressway systems in Thailand that would involve a joint investment by Japan and China.
The prevailing view is that Beijing wants to create the impression that these joint projects on its Belt and Road initiative are evidence that Tokyo is now participating in — or better yet — endorsing the strategy.
For Abe, this could have mixed results.
On the positive side, Japan’s participation in the Belt and Road project would allow Abe to live up to expectations from the nation’s business community, which has long pushed him to cooperate with what it believes will be a lucrative opportunity for domestic firms to expand overseas.
In fact, in response to a request from the business community, Abe had already announced at a forum in Tokyo last year that Japan can cooperate with the Chinese initiative.
But at the same time, outright support for Xi’s pet project could ignite a backlash from Abe’s core conservative support base, “many of whom are anti-China,” while also irritating the U.S. and even contributing to China’s effort to drive a wedge in the Japan-U.S. alliance, according to Kawamura.
“So I don’t think Japan can straightforwardly call these third-country infrastructure projects with China part of the Belt and Road,” he said. “They will perhaps come up with some other alternative expression to get around it.”
But even indirect support from Japan may be welcome for China, which has seen the international community grow sour on the initiative, with some countries even likening it to a modern-day incarnation of colonialism.
Criticism has arisen over what is often dubbed China’s “debt-trap diplomacy” and its apparent attempt to influence the domestic politics of foreign countries it invests in.
Sri Lanka, for example, was forced to hand over the strategic port of Hambantota to China last year after finding itself unable to repay the mammoth debts owed to Chinese state-controlled firms.In a blunt move that startled officials in Beijing in August, Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir Mohamad announced the cancellation of multibillion-dollar rail and gas pipeline projects funded by China to prevent his nation going bankrupt, even likening the Belt and Road to a “new version of colonialism.”
“China wants to make it look like it now has Japan’s support for the Belt and Road and use it as momentum” for the project, Kawamura said.
Although Suga said that the upcoming Abe-Xi talks will also focus on “candid discussions on regional affairs, including North Korea,” any breakthrough on security and the long-simmering territorial dispute over the Senkakus is unlikely.
“The sanctions against Pyongyang and tensions over the Senkakus will come up — most likely in private, so we won’t hear about them,” said June Teufel Dreyer, a professor and Asia expert at the University of Miami. “I don’t think that either Abe or Xi will want to push hard on them.”
While the two nations have agreed on the goal of denuclearizing the Korean Peninsula, Beijing has taken a far more lenient approach to the issue, urging the incremental lifting of sanctions against the North Korean regime.
So, in terms of actual tangibles that may arise from this meeting, experts say expectations should be kept at a minimum.
“The purpose of this meeting is to symbolize warming Sino-Japanese relations,” Dreyer said.
A case in point: Abe may ask for the first loan of a Chinese panda in seven years when he sits down with Xi.
Negotiations have been underway between some Japanese municipalities and the Chinese government for some time over the loan — long a symbol of the bilateral friendship — which last materialized in February 2011 before ties turned chilly.
“We believe a panda’s new arrival would make Japanese people happy, given how popular they are here,” Suga said, adding that the government would “promote the efforts by municipalities.”
Taking advantage of the thaw, Abe is also reportedly considering asking China to lift a ban it has imposed on food imports from Fukushima and other prefectures since the nuclear crisis erupted in 2011.