In his first diplomatic tour of the year, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Australia and three Southeast Asian nations — the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam — to confirm the need for closer economic and security ties with these countries, with one common undertone — checking China’s increasingly assertive maritime moves in the South China Sea and its military buildup in disputed waters there.
During a Monday news conference in Hanoi wrapping up the tour, Abe said he concurred with leaders of the four countries regarding the importance of the rule of law and freedom of navigation — a reference to China’s militarization of disputed territory in the South China Sea. The message was not lost on China, whose Foreign Ministry spokeswoman charged that Abe had “ulterior motives” in highlighting the South China Sea issue during his tour and is “sparing no effort and seeking whatever means available in sowing discord.”
Since returning to the government’s helm in 2012, Abe spent a significant portion of his diplomatic energy on building a network of countries that would encircle China — if not containing the emerging major power in the region — while Tokyo’s own relations with Beijing have remained mostly chilly with occasional flare-ups in tension over a territorial row. But it’s time that the Abe administration seriously looks into repairing ties with Beijing on a sustained basis through steady dialogue at various levels and in a variety of fields such as security, economy and environmental cooperation.
Improved Japan-China relations will be all the more important given the shadow of uncertainty over the international political landscape cast by the incoming U.S. administration of Donald Trump. Even before his formal inauguration on Saturday, Trump, who has blamed China for America’s trade and economic woes since the beginning of his presidential campaign, indicated that he may not be bound by the “one-China” principle that has guided Washington’s diplomatic relations with Beijing since the 1970s.
Troubled U.S.-China relations is what Japan needs the least, either from a security or economic perspective. The Abe administration should approach both Washington and Beijing in an effort to help ease mutual tensions and work for stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Abe should convey a clear message to that effect to Trump when they meet after the president-elect takes office.
Tokyo should also seek to rebuild its ties with Beijing. Bilateral relations were severely strained when Tokyo purchased the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea — which China also claims as its own — from its private owner in September 2012. Bilateral relations appeared to take a turn for the better when the two governments reached a set of accords over the Senkaku dispute and other issues in November 2014, which paved the way for the first meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. But ties nosedived again the following year after China began constructing islands in disputed areas of the South China Sea that are also claimed by the Philippines and Vietnam.
When the Permanent Court of Arbitration in the Hague ruled against China’s “historic rights” in the disputed waters in July 2016, countries including the U.S. and Japan urged China to accept the decision but China promptly rejected this advice with a warning not to intervene in its affairs. Tensions also flared up between Japan and China in the summer when Chinese government vessels made repeated incursions into Japan’s territorial waters around the Senkakus despite diplomatic protests from Tokyo. Last month, high-level talks between Japan and China aimed at creating a mechanism for communication between the Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese military to prevent accidental clashes — which the two governments agreed to seek to establish back in 2007 — remained bogged down over mutual differences in the Senkaku dispute.
Such conditions between Japan and its giant neighbor in Northeast Asia must not be left as they are. Tokyo and Beijing, which in September will mark the 45th anniversary since the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1972, urgently need to restore the line of communication between their top leaders, especially given that U.S.-China relations look poised to enter a period of turbulence. That should be the least that Japan and China can do to keep Asia-Pacific tensions from rising amid growing global uncertainties.
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