Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s trip to China — the first official visit there by a top Japanese leader in seven years — is yet another indication of improvement in the bilateral relationship that at one point in recent years had plummeted to its chilliest point since the two countries normalized diplomatic ties in the 1970s. As he departed for Beijing on Thursday for his three-day visit, Abe said he hoped to elevate Japan-China relations to “a new stage” through his talks with President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang on Friday. The two governments are expected to agree on economic cooperation such as joint infrastructure development in third countries as well as confidence-building measures, including exchanges between their defense officials.
The rapprochement between Tokyo and Beijing, however, is deemed to be a product of the convergence of interests of China, which hopes to befriend Japan as it faces an increasingly bitter confrontation with the United States under the leadership of President Donald Trump, and Japan, which aims to stabilize its relationship with China — which was severely strained by the Senkaku Islands dispute — by promoting cooperation with the economic powerhouse that possesses growing international clout. But the widening rift between China and the U.S., Japan’s primary ally, may require Tokyo to maintain a certain distance with Beijing.
Concern remains deep in Japan that China, with its rapid military buildup and aggressive maritime postures, is seeking to build hegemony in Asia, while Beijing is apprehensive that Japan is teaming up with the U.S. to contain China’s rise.
The dispute over Okinawa Prefecture’s Senkaku Islands — whose nationalization by the central government in 2012 severely strained relations with China, which also claims them — has effectively been put on the back burner, even though Chinese government vessels’ routine incursions into Japanese waters around the islands continue. There appears to be a long way to go before full-scale improvement in bilateral relations can be achieved. A recent joint opinion poll taken in the two countries also showed that while the image of Japan among Chinese respondents has significantly improved from the low point that it had hit in recent years, the ratio of Japanese with negative impressions of China continues to be high.
Two days before Abe left for Beijing, Japan and China marked the 40th anniversary of the 1978 bilateral Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which followed the normalization of diplomatic ties in 1972. The picture of Japan-China relations is now radically different from what it was 40 years ago. The policy of economic reforms and liberalization launched by Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping at that time introduced foreign capital to China’s economy, driving its export-led growth as well as its subsequent development as a giant consumer market with the world’s largest population. Its breakneck growth catapulted China’s economy to the world’s No. 2 spot, surpassing Japan in terms of gross domestic product in 2010. On the strength of its robust growth, China in recent years has embarked on attempts to boost its international economic and political influence by leading the establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and the “One Belt, One Road” initiative of cross-continental infrastructure investments.
A decision unveiled this week by Japan to formally end its Official Development Assistance to China, in which Tokyo provided a total of ¥3.65 trillion in economic aid, mostly in yen loans, to Beijing since 1979, was long overdue but seems symbolic of the transformation of bilateral relations over the past four decades. The volume of Japan-China trade reached $297 billion (some ¥33 trillion) in 2017 — 85 times as much as in 1977. Business relations between the two countries have had their ups and downs — Japanese exports to and investments in China fell sharply following the Tiananmen Square incident in 1989, and anti-Japanese demonstrations and riots that took place when bilateral political relations were disrupted by the Senkaku Islands issue, and other disputes negatively impacted the activities of Japanese companies in China. Still, China today is Japan’s largest trading partner.
A Japanese prime minister had not made an official visit to China since 2011, although Abe and Xi met several times in recent years on the sidelines of international conferences. Despite all the differences, Japan-China relations should not warrant such a long absence of formal top-level diplomacy — a key to stable bilateral ties. In his talks with China’s leaders Friday, Abe needs to set the stage for Xi’s reciprocal visit to Japan — deemed likely to be held next June. Regular contacts need to resume between the top leaders in order to stabilize the Japan-China relationship.