Commentary / Japan

Can Japan-China relations return to ‘normal’?

by Stephen R. Nagy

The first formal Sino-Japanese summit since 2011 will be held Friday. Over the last seven years, President Xi Jinping has consolidated his position at the apex of power in China by ending term limits, installing Xi Jinping Thought into the CCP’s constitution, and pushing forward with his signature policy, the “Belt and Road” initiative.

Importantly, he has also placed himself at the head of the most important Leading Study Groups and holds the key titles of chairman of the military commission, the president of China and the general secretary of the Communist Party of China.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has similarly consolidated his position by being elected for a third time as president of the Liberal Democratic Party, putting him on course to become Japan’s longest-serving prime minister. Through his tenure, he has won four elections, passed collective self-defense legislation and presided over a sustained economic growth cycle executed under the rubric of Abenomics.

Notwithstanding their consolidated political positions, Xi and Abe have been unable to return bilateral relations back to the level of the pre-nationalization of the Senkaku Islands. In China, sustained anti-Japanese rhetoric, highly personalized attacks on Abe, and a narrative that Japan was part of a U.S.-led containment strategy, have complicated efforts to return Sino-Japanese relations back to what Abe calls “their normal state.”

Similarly, regular incursions into Japanese controlled waters by Chinese naval and merchant vessels, island building and militarization of those islands in the South China Sea, the unilateral declaration of an air defense identification zone, and the rejection of the July 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s decision, have only re-enforced views in Tokyo that China is a revisionist state bent on re-establishing a Sino-centric regional order.

For Beijing, the resurrection of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (also known as ‘the Quad), Tokyo’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy, and the joint statement by the United States, Japan and the European Union on pushing back against non-market economies (read China), all are evidence that Japan and the West are attempting to keep China down. Beijing sees such actions as part of a strategy to prevent it from achieving its 2025 Made in China ambition, as well as its twin goals of “socialist modernization” by 2035, and by 2049 to have built “a modern socialist country that is strong, prosperous, democratic, culturally advanced, and harmonious.”

With these deep chasms in their relationship, we need to ask: Is there really a process of reconciliation occurring? The answer to this question is nuanced and driven by a rapidly deteriorating Sino-U.S. relationship.

On Sept. 12, during his visit to Vladivostok for the Russian Federation to attend the Eastern Economic Forum, Abe held a Japan-China summit with Xi. During that meeting, Abe commented, “The Japan-China relationship has got back on to a normal track.”

What is unclear in that statement is whether Abe was referring to a return to the post-normalization type of relationship, which was characterized by the separation of political and economic relations (known as seikei bunri in Japanese).

This “return to normal track” has followed a yearlong effort in which both sides were attempting to lay the groundwork for a less conflictual relationship. For example, in September 2017, Abe paid a surprise visit to the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, marking China’s upcoming National Day as well as the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations.

These have come at the same time as Japanese submarine vessels paid a port call to Vietnam’s Cam Ranh Bay on Sept. 17, a day before the 87th anniversary of the Mukden Incident, which is largely seen in China as the beginnings of the Japanese invasion of China.

The shift in tone in Sino-Japanese relations has been chiefly driven by Beijing’s growing concern over Sino-U.S. relations. Abe has stated on numerous occasions that Japan was ready to meet with Chinese counterparts at any time or place.

These statements have been rebuked by Chinese counterparts, who claim that Japan and Abe in particular were insincere in their intentions toward China.

It wasn’t until Trump began to step up pressure on Beijing to press North Korea to denuclearize, and the beginning of the Sino-U.S. trade war in July, that Beijing understood the full scope of his administration’s determination and degree of unorthodoxy in policy approach to U.S.-China relations.

Following the 19th Party Congress in October 2017, Beijing started to use expressions like a “new era” to describe both Sino-Japanese relations as well as South Korean-China relations. This was purposeful. Beijing was watching the Trump administration ramp up pressure on Pyongyang through a consolidated international campaign to put sanctions on the North.

Beijing would have to be enlisted as part of any real sanctions campaign, and the U.S. knew that. With threats that Beijing could either help constructively with North Korea and the denuclearization, or see the U.S. deal with it on their own terms, Beijing felt pressured to step up to the plate and exert its influence over Pyongyang.

The threat of secondary sanctions on Chinese businesses and the possibility of unilateral military action to pressure Pyongyang has led China to rethink its regional relations, so that it can focus all its diplomatic energy on ensuring the Sino-U.S. relationship does not spiral out of control.

For Beijing, it made no strategic sense to allow both Sino-Japanese and South Korea-Chinese relations to worsen while Sino-U.S. relations were entering the darkest period since the 1970s.

The upcoming bilateral meeting between Abe and Xi is not about reconciliation, nor a movement toward a cordial entente.

For Beijing, the meeting is about putting out diplomatic fires in its neighborhood so that it can concentrate on worsening Sino-U.S. relations. By offering economic carrots to Tokyo such as joint infrastructure projects, Beijing hopes to lower tensions, maximize economic cooperation, and drive a wedge between Japan and the U.S. Other examples of Beijing’s approach include pushing forward on the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (which excludes the U.S.) and accelerating trilateral free trade talks between Japan, China and South Korea.

Tokyo is realistic about the prospects for real progress in bilateral relations. Japan’s shelving approach to disputes in the East China Sea are no longer viable, as China is using lawfare tactics to erode away Japanese sovereignty claims over the Senkaku Islands.

Despite these security concerns, Japan’s return to economic growth has been in part fueled by the growth of the Chinese economy. Any sustained economic growth in Japan will necessarily include more, not less trade and engagement with China. Abe’s administration understands this, and seeks to return Sino-Japanese relations to a recalibrated state — one that focus on deepening economic exchanges while putting aside political problems.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor of international relations and politics at the International Christian University, Tokyo. An earlier version of this article was published Oct. 22 in the Asia & the Pacific Society’s Policy Forum.