Commentary / Japan | C Commentary

A reset in Japan-China relations?

by Stephen R. Nagy

Comparing the state of Japan-China relations in the wake of Shinzo Abe’s return to the prime ministership in December 2012 to today, the bilateral relationship has come back to a semblance of normality.

During this transition period, we had Japanese and Chinese ambassadors dueling on the BBC, comparing each other’s political leaders to the Harry Potter villain Voldemort in a farcical war of words. We had the Chinese government hold the 70th anniversary of the victory of the “Chinese People’s War of Resistance Against Japanese Aggression,” and Abe himself was vilified “a political villain, who was much like the terrorists and fascists on the commonly seen blacklists.”

During the same period according to the Defense Ministry, verbal jousting has been accompanied by Japanese jets being scrambled to intercept Chinese military aircraft approaching its airspace 638 times in fiscal year 2018, an increase of 27.6 percent compared to 2017. These incursions into Japanese airspace continue to occur alongside regular incursions by Chinese government and other vessels into Japan’s territorial sea and associated contiguous zone.

Fast forward to the 19th Party Congress in 2017, the “new era of Sino-Japan relations” narrative begins to emerge in President Xi Jinping’s China, paving the way for the historic and long anticipated meeting in Beijing on Oct. 26, 2018, between Abe and Xi.

These contradictions raise many questions as to what exactly has changed in the bilateral relationship.

Looking through the lens of a glass half full, the Maritime Self-Defense Force has conducted goodwill exercises with China’s navy for the first time in eight years. The  Japan Bank for International Cooperation signed a memorandum of understanding with the China Development Bank to promote cooperation between them for projects in third country markets where Japanese and Chinese corporations are involved.

This thaw in the area of security and cooperation in infrastructure are positive developments for both states. The goodwill exercises, although superficial, are a step forward in re-establishing defense exchanges after the nationalization of the Senkaku Islands.

The same could be said for infrastructure cooperation in third countries, which provides both countries the opportunity to learn from each other. For China, establishing a sustainable and long-term partnership with Japan in building infrastructure would bring badly needed legitimacy to Xi’s signature Belt and Road initiative, as growing criticism over environmental sustainability, debt-trap diplomacy and neo-colonial behavior becomes the BRI brand.

For Japan, the cooperation is an opportunity to infuse infrastructure projects associated with China with “transparent procurement practices, the ensuring of debt sustainability and the high standards of economic, fiscal, financial, social and environmental sustainability,” core principles of Japanese infrastructure and connectivity projects but also of the recently signed Partnership on Sustainable Connectivity and Quality Infrastructure between the European Union and Japan.

Simultaneously, through cooperation with China in infrastructure Japan can pre-empt the use of infrastructure to tie participating states into a Chinese-led system that could be used to exclude Japan and its allies and partners.

Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan attendance at Emperor Naruhito’s enthronement ceremony is also significant. Wang’s close relationship with Xi and his ranking within the Communist Party hierarchy suggests that China is indeed serious about improving bilateral relations with Tokyo.

This “glass half full” view of the bilateral thaw stands in stark contrast to the numerous structural issues in the relationship and the real rationale for China’s embrace of Tokyo after spending so much time disparaging Japan and its ruling elites.

In the case of the former, despite the goodwill exercises with China’s navy, Tokyo has a plethora of concerns related to China’s military buildup and activities in the East and South China seas. The regular incursion into Japanese waters associated with the Senkaku Islands by Chinese government and merchant vessels is a regular test of Japan’s ability to enforce administrative control. In particular, the gray zone tactic of using merchant vessels places Japan in the delicate position of how to push back against quasi-civilian vessels without using force — an action that would be interpreted in China as Japanese aggression requiring a military response.

In the South China Sea, militarized artificial islands and the testing of missile systems such as the CM-401 is worrisome as they are rapid and precision strikes systems for use against medium-size ships, naval task forces and offshore facilities. The take-home message here for Tokyo and Washington is that freedom of navigation operations or ships transiting near Chinese claimed water features or the Taiwan Strait would be at risk.

These actions reinforce the view that China is an assertive, revisionist power in the region not willing to follow international law and decisions made by international bodies such as the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s July 2016 decision nullifying China’s claims in the South China Sea.

Japan’s response has been to promote a rules-based maritime order through the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision. It is hoped that through creating a critical mass of stakeholders in the region, that FOIP can be a platform for a rules-based maritime order based on inclusivity and ASEAN centrality that address security concerns associated with Chinese behavior in the region.

Just as the security realm remains a central concern for Tokyo, so do the land, sea and digital corridors of China’s BRI despite the cosmetic rapprochement that has transpired since Abe’s visit to Beijing.

The digital component of the BRI, while bringing speed and digital access to millions of consumers, has serious implications for privacy, the forced localization of data, and the bifurcation of digital systems into a closed system led by China and an open system led by the United States. The impact of this divergence of digital economies would require businesses to duplicate and then localize their business platforms for each digital economy. This would have the effect of increasing costs for businesses by shortening supply chains.

To mitigate this challenge, Japan is working with like-minded states to realize the Free Trade and Data Free Flow with Trust (DFFT) to ensure the global production network and supply chains remain intact.

Aside from the challenges associated with bilateral security and economic issues, there is discreet disquietude concerning domestic trends in China, including the treatment of the Uighur minority, instability in Hong Kong, the consolidation of term-less leadership and the advent of a technological Leninist authoritarian state.

Tokyo is clear-eyed that Beijing’s outreach to Japan is not based on a fundamental shift in the views of each other or because they have addressed the structural issues that separate them. Rather, the temporary reprieve is due to the immense pressure being placed on China by the Trump administration, requiring Beijing to practice “the economy of enemies.”

Tokyo needs to maximize the benefits it can accrue from China during this respite to forge stronger relations with other middle powers and the U.S. to lock in both FOIP and DFFT as both will be essential to secure its national interests, and retain agency and relevance as the U.S.-China strategic rivalry gathers momentum.

Stephen R. Nagy is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University.

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