Reversing his position, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has indicated that Japan is ready to cooperate with China’s “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR) initiative for cross-continental infrastructure development under certain conditions. He is also now willing to consider Japan joining the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) — of which Japan, along with the United States, sat out when it was set up in 2015 — once doubts about its governance and operation are cleared. While these shifts may be motivated by concerns that Tokyo could be left behind as Beijing and Washington move closer in trying to restrain North Korea, it’s time that Japan also take steps to rebuild its strained ties with China, and cooperating with the Chinese initiatives should be a good start.
After Tokyo nationalized the disputed Senkaku Islands in 2012, relations with China plunged to their lowest point since the two countries normalized ties in 1972. China’s aggressive maritime posture in the South China Sea, such as its large-scale construction of islands in disputed areas, have added to bilateral tensions. Efforts toward rebuilding the frigid ties have been slow, and top-level contacts remain sporadic.
In a speech in Tokyo earlier this month, Abe lauded the OBOR initiative — put forth by Chinese President Xi Jinping in 2013 to facilitate massive investments that would connect a land-based economic belt modeled on the ancient Silk Road and a maritime corridor stretching from China to Southeast Asia, India, Africa and Europe — as having the “potential to connect East and West as well as diverse regions found in between.”
Abe said Tokyo is “ready to extend cooperation” with the initiative on condition it will be in “harmony with a free and fair trans-Pacific economic zone,” that the infrastructure to be built will “be open to use by all” and “developed through procurement that is transparent and fair,” and that the projects will “be economically viable and financed by debt that can be repaid, and not harm the soundness of the debtor nations’ finances.”
Abe’s remarks followed his dispatch of Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the Liberal Democratic Party and known as a leading pro-China figure within the LDP, to a major international conference that Xi organized in Beijing in mid-May to promote the OBOR initiative. In his meeting with Xi, Nikai hand-delivered an Abe letter calling for mutual visits by top leaders of the two countries. Xi reportedly expressed his willingness toward improving bilateral ties and stressed that his initiative will be a “new platform” for cooperation between China and Japan.
Xi pushed for creation of the AIIB to finance infrastructure investments in the OBOR scheme, and called for participation by countries around the world in establishing the new multinational institution. Skeptics have viewed these initiatives as China’s bid to challenge the post-World War II international order that had long been dominated by U.S.-led Western powers. Japan opted to stay out of the AIIB when it was set up, citing concerns over the bank’s governance and operation. However, the number of countries and regions that have signed on has reached 77 — outnumbering the 67 that have joined the Asia Development Bank, whose operation is led by the U.S. and Japan. Japan and the U.S. are the only Group of Seven powers that have not joined the AIIB. About 130 countries around the world sent delegates to the Beijing conference in mid-May, including 29 government leaders. Japanese firms also see business opportunities in Xi’s initiative.
There are views that the shift in Tokyo’s position toward Xi’s initiative and the AIIB has been driven by its concern that the administration of U.S. President Donald Trump, whose summit with Xi in April led to a rapprochement as they try to deal with North Korea’s nuclear weapons and missile programs, may leave Japan behind by moving ties forward with China. Either way, China welcomed Abe’s recent statement, noting that participation in the OBOR initiative can be a “testing field for China and Japan to achieve mutually beneficial cooperation and common development.”
The government is reportedly seeking a meeting between Abe and Xi when they attend the Group of 20 summit in Germany next month. It has also begun exploring an Abe trip to China and a Xi visit to Japan next year. It would be a positive development if Abe’s remarks on the OBOR initiative and AIIB indicate that his administration is serious about rebuilding relations with China. While concerns remain about both the initiative and the AIIB, Japan can do little to address them by staying out. The government should positively consider its participation as leverage to restore its relations with China.