Commentary / Japan

Sino-Japanese ties bound to remain stalled

by Hitoki Den

U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America first” diplomacy demonstrated during his November visit to five Asian nations will likely intensify the competition and rivalry between Japan and China over their respective influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Although Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping hailed a “fresh start” for the Japan-China relations during their meeting held on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Vietnam last month, the prospect for an early improvement of Tokyo-Beijing ties appears rather slim, given the fundamental differences in their respective global strategies, not to mention thorny issues that have frozen the bilateral ties for years, such as differences in interpretation of their past history, the disputed islands in the East China Sea, and China’s aggressive maritime activities in the South China Sea.

For Japan, its foreign policy goal has been and will continue to be a leading power in the Asia-Pacific region while curbing China’s growing influence through close alliance with the United States. That of China, on the other hand, is to create an empire within this century with its “One Belt, One Road” initiative aimed westward all the way through Europe and by curbing as much U.S. influence as possible in the western Pacific. The U.S. receding from the region via Trump’s “America first” policy will undoubtedly put the two countries on a course for even fiercer competition for influence in East Asia and beyond.

Both Abe and Xi are strong, nationalistic leaders whose political bases have been consolidated recently. Abe won a commanding victory in the general election held in October, during which his Liberal Democratic Party, together with its coalition partner, secured a two-thirds majority in the Lower House. Likewise, Xi won his second five-year term as China’s top leader in October’s Communist Party Congress, with his status elevated to match those of Mao Zedong, the nation’s founding father, and Deng Xiaoping, a reformist leader credited for opening the country to the outside world in the late 1970s.

Abe’s victory has made likely his re-election for a third term as the LDP president next year and if that happens, he can stay as prime minister through 2021, which in turn would enable him to push forward his long-standing goal of amending Japan’s postwar Constitution. Since the motion to amend the Constitution must first be made with a two-thirds majority in both houses of the Diet, Abe has a narrow window of opportunity to start the process before summer 2019, when the next election for the Upper House is scheduled, in which his ruling coalition and its allies could lose the necessary majority they currently hold in the chamber. Once the motion is made, the proposed amendment will have to be approved by a majority in a national referendum.

On his part, Xi has vowed to make China an undisputed superpower in all fields and is expected to further strengthen the nation’s assertiveness, whether it is over historical issues with Japan, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, or its aggressive maritime claims in the South China Sea. Trump’s foreign policy platform that he is always going to put America first, in the same way he expects other foreign leaders to put their countries first, practically gave a “carte blanche” for Abe and Xi to pursue their respective national and foreign policy agenda without interference from the U.S.

During their meeting in Tokyo, Abe and Trump agreed that Japan purchase billions of dollars worth of military weapons from the U.S. to counter the ever increasing threat from North Korea. It was a win-win deal for both: for Abe, the deal would not only help bolster Japan’s defense capabilities but also justify calls among the nation’s conservative wing that Japan should be allowed to defend itself by amending the current war-renouncing Constitution; for Trump, it was a step toward rectifying the U.S.’s large bilateral trade imbalance that is in Japan’s favor and from a longer-term viewpoint, one that could lead to lessen its military burden to defend Japan.

In Beijing, Trump praised Xi for his leadership and withheld, at least in public, any criticism of China’s oppression of human rights and expansionist activities in the South China Sea. Instead, his discussion with the Chinese leader was focused on the need for China to reduce its huge trade surplus with the U.S. and do more to rein in North Korea to stop Pyongyang’s nuclear weapons and ballistic missile development program. Unlike his predecessor Barrack Obama, Trump did not openly challenge Xi’s call for building a “new type of major power relations” when the latter repeated his mantra that “the Pacific is large enough to accommodate both China and the U.S.,” a code demonstrating Beijing’s ambition to control the western Pacific without U.S. interference. Xi has advocated that the security in Asia should be provided by Asians and is expected to continue reasserting China’s foreign policy positions even more aggressively, including its calls for the U.S. to solve the North Korean missile crisis through dialogue and negotiations.

The Trump-Xi meeting put Japan at unease, generating fear that the U.S. president was less reliable, whether in countering the threat from North Korea or curbing China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region. Reminding Tokyo of the “Nixon Shock” in 1972, in which then U.S. President Richard Nixon normalized Washington-Beijing relations while leaving Tokyo in the dark, Trump’s unpredictability would encourage Japan to be more self-reliant in formulating its defense policy, including amending the Constitution drafted while Japan was under the U.S.-led occupation after its World War II defeat.

Such a move by Tokyo would undoubtedly alarm China, which has objected any move that it perceives Japan is returning to its militaristic past.

Although Japanese media reports highlighted Xi’s relatively warm facial expression when he greeted Abe during their encounter last month, the Chinese leader practically snubbed the prime minister at their first meeting in Beijing in 2014. Xi practically ignored Abe, who had extended his hand in a friendly gesture, by simply shaking his hand and quickly turning away. The coolness on the part of Xi that continued to characterize their subsequent meetings clearly showed that the kind of chemistry existing between Abe and Trump does not exist between Abe and Xi.

Compounded by the lack of trust and mutual respect between the two leaders, Japan and China will have to manage their relations within the larger context of pursuing their global interests. And in so doing, the bilateral ties will likely be marked by even greater rivalry and competition for influence in the Asia-Pacific region. As the old saying goes, “There cannot be two suns in the sky.”

A former United Nations official, Hitoki Den is a commentator based in New York. He is the author of “Kokuren wo Yomu: Watashino Seimukan Noto Kara” (“A Story of the U.N.: From the Notes of a Political Affairs Officer”) as well as many articles on U.N. and Asian issues.