HONG KONG – Four months ago, the leaders of Japan and China met on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in Osaka and agreed to normalize their relationship. Chinese President Xi Jinping accepted Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s invitation to visit Japan “when cherry blossoms bloom.”
Such a visit would complete an exchange of summit meetings, begun when Abe visited Beijing last year. It has been a goal of Japan’s China policy in recent years.
Stemming from the renewed amity, a strategic dialogue, suspended for seven years, was revived in August. In October, a Chinese guided missile destroyer arrived for China’s first participation in Japan’s fleet review. However, the review was canceled because of Typhoon Hagibis.
Japan and China’s policy of mutual cordiality was reflected last week when Chinese Vice President Wang Qishan attended the enthronement of Emperor Naruhito. In 1990, when Emperor Akihito was enthroned, China was represented by a vice premier. This time, Japan asked for a more senior official and China sent its vice president.
Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said that, through the vice president’s visit, “We hope our two countries will keep the momentum of high-level exchange, step up practical exchange and cooperation in various fields, and move forward China-Japan relationship along the sound, right track.”
But despite a mutual desire for improved relations, problems keep popping up, underlining deep-seated differences.
On the Senkaku Islands territorial dispute, Japanese figures show that incursions by Chinese vessels so far this year have exceeded the number for all of 2018.
The history issue resurfaced when two members of the Cabinet visited the Yasukuni Shrine to mark the autumn festival and Abe sent a ritual offering. China upbraided Japan for these “negative moves.” However, both the Abe Yasukuni gift and the Chinese protest have become ritualistic.
Little progress has been made on Xi’s pet “Belt and Road” project. While China was pleased that Japan had agreed in principle to participate in infrastructure projects in third countries, Tadashi Maeda, governor of the Japan Bank for International Cooperation, criticized the project in October as a “political show” without real substance.
On another level, China has detained a Japanese citizen, a Hokkaido University professor, apparently on spying charges. Asked if this would affect the momentum for improving relations, a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson said that this was only “an isolated case” and that China stands “ready to work with Japan to make sure bilateral relations could advance along the right track.”
If indicted, the academic would be the 10th Japanese citizen to be charged with spying since 2015. Of the previous nine, seven have been convicted so far.
The day after the enthronement ceremony, Abe met with Wang and raised the case of the professor, who specializes in Chinese politics. The prime minister asked the vice president to handle the case in a “positive manner.” According to the Chinese side, Abe said that the Osaka meeting had returned bilateral relations to normality and promised to properly handle sensitive issues, including those relating to Taiwan.
Left unspoken was Japan’s continuing apprehension of the Chinese threat, a fear that permeates Tokyo’s latest defense white paper, which notes that “China has continued its attempts to change the status quo in the East and South China Seas … and has intensified its activities in the Pacific Ocean and the Sea of Japan.”
While suspicions remain in both countries, each is reaching out to the other partly in response to American pressure. Japan has signed a limited trade accord with the United States, while Beijing and Washington are moving toward a first-stage trade agreement. Both face further American pressures.
China is seeking to drive a deeper wedge between Japan and the U.S., encouraging Tokyo to act more independently. A commentary in Global Times last June recalled that “Japan has long played second fiddle to the U.S.” and said that with a healthy relationship with China, Japan could “also exercise international leadership.”
The ambivalent nature of the new cordiality was underlined on Saturday, at the opening of the annual Beijing-Tokyo forum, when State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Japan to keep its promise to correctly deal with issues regarding history and over Taiwan. He pressed Tokyo to respect the “One China” policy of not recognizing Taiwan as independent from China.
Both countries are working to remain on the cordiality track by ensuring that all goes smoothly before Xi’s state visit. But how long this cordiality can be sustained is still a question. Much will depend on the outcome of the visit itself. Progress can only be made step by step, especially where political trust is concerned.
Frank Ching is an American journalist and commentator based in Hong Kong who frequently writes on issues related to China.