Commentary / Japan

Amid lingering tensions, signs of possible Japan-China collaboration

by Ted Gover

Contributing Writer

Recent developments indicate that relations between Tokyo and Beijing may be improving as both countries look for ways to manage their lingering disputes amid changing dynamics in East Asia.

There appears to be some momentum in relations between Tokyo and Beijing. Chinese Foreign Minister and State Councilor Wang Yi visited Tokyo last week for discussions and Foreign Minister Taro Kono traveled to Beijing in January, making it the first time in nine years that the foreign ministers of both countries have made mutual visits.

Additionally, a high-level economic dialogue between the two countries has restarted for the first time after an eight-year hiatus and plans are in the works for Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to visit Tokyo next month.

Difficulties between Tokyo and Beijing abound. Both countries have substantive policy differences involving the Senkaku Islands and the East China Sea, North Korea, and China’s militarization of the South China Sea.

Other strains involve China’s environmental degradation and its impact on Japan, differences over trade and investment, China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative and Japan’s work with the U.S. and regional partners on an open Indo-Pacific strategy aimed to counter China’s expansionist maritime activities.

Yet, events of late may move Japan and China toward increased cooperation.

Chinese President Xi Jinping’s consolidation of power at the 13th National People’s Congress in March brought with it the legal means for his possible long-term rule. This change to China’s laws will likely allow Xi to continue policies aimed at making China the world’s premier economic and security power as it seeks to displace the U.S. and push it out of East Asia.

Some analysts argue that to accomplish this task, Xi will need cooperative, stable working relationships with Asian states. They assert that China’s need for collaboration with regional countries may force Xi to temporarily grant flexibility in troublesome areas of its relations with Tokyo as well as others, putting hot-button issues on the back burner to allow time for its continued economic and military progression.

Another development that is likely to require Tokyo’s and Beijing’s joint attention is the upcoming summit between North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in and Kim’s subsequent summit with U.S. President Donald Trump. Reports indicate that Seoul is in talks with Washington and Pyongyang about negotiating a peace treaty to formally end the Korean War as part of efforts to induce the North to denuclearize.

One possible condition of such an agreement would be security guarantees for North Korea, perhaps involving promises by the U.S. not to overthrow the Kim regime and to normalize ties with the North.

Although Kim has issued statements over the past week that he will not insist on U.S. troops leaving South Korea as a condition for denuclearizing and scrapping his intercontinental ballistic missile program, the North is well-known for making this very demand in negotiations with the U.S. in past years and may try again. Understandably, Tokyo, Beijing and others will be watching closely for any change in the footprint of U.S. forces in the region as part of an agreement to rid the North of nuclear weapons and de-escalate tensions.

An additional change to the region involving Tokyo and Beijing concerns trade and commerce. Trump’s disapproval of past U.S. trade deals with Asian states is well-known and his frustration over trade deficits has led him to announce sanctions against China and to impose tariffs against Japan and others. This new approach, some argue, has left the previously U.S.-led system of trade in upheaval, allowing China to be in the driver’s seat.

The changing dynamics relating to trade in the region have led Xi to announce measures that protect intellectual property, lower tariffs and relax measures on foreign capital entering China. While these actions are focused on addressing some of Mr. Trump’s longstanding concerns, they also speak to corporate Japan’s interests in China and present new opportunities for Tokyo.

While there remain many areas of disagreement and distrust between Japan and China that have their roots in history as well as the present day, there appears to be movement toward improving bilateral relations in certain targeted areas, i.e., trade, finance, technological innovation and development.

It may be too early to declare that relations between Japan and China are headed toward stabilization. Rather, recent developments indicate that both countries recognize they will need to collaborate at higher levels to meet upcoming challenges affecting the security and economic landscapes of East Asia.

Ted Gover is associate director of the Tribal Administration Program at Claremont Graduate University.