My Chinese colleagues during my visit to Beijing this past week were jubilant about the so-called new era of Sino-Japanese relations and the upcoming tete-a-tete between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping in March.
They argued that the relationship has stabilized, as evidenced by Xi’s coming visit to Japan, by the increased numbers of scholars visiting China, and by their mutual interest in buttressing the multilateral trading system that they view is under attack by U.S. President Donald Trump’s “America First” doctrine.
What to make of this optimism? Are Japan-China relations structurally in a better place than before Abe and Xi came into power? Are Japan-U.S. relations as strained as Chinese believe they are? What can Beijing do to assuage the concerns about China’s rise for Japan and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific?
The optimism emanating out of Beijing as to the state of Japan-China relations is partially supported by the quiet diplomacy conducted and the consolidation of power by the leaders of both countries. Compared with 2012, Japan and China’s foreign ministers are meeting more regularly, both states are cooperating to deliver the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), and as a result of the October 2018 visit of Abe to meet Xi, they have begun third-country infrastructure cooperation in Thailand as a test case of how they can work together. They have even set up a maritime and aerial communications mechanism to enhance crisis management.
Other barometers of warming include an abatement of anti-Japanese sentiment in oratory from Beijing, in Chinese TV shows and media, and Chinese citizens’ increased positive views of Japan. We have also seen a steady upward trajectory of Japanese exports to China from 2012 to 2019. These all should be welcomed, encouraged and sustained.
Notwithstanding these positive indicators, a litmus test of the bilateral relationship seemingly ignored in my recent visit was the lingering territorial issues in the East China Sea over the Senkaku Islands, Japanese (and other countries’) concerns about militarized artificial islands in the South China Sea, and broader Chinese strategic intentions in the Indo-Pacific region.
This list does not include most assessments that China has shifted its thinking with regard to North Korea’s possession of nuclear weapons, specifically that it can live with a nuclear North Korea that is friendly to Beijing. Nor does it include the current Chinese march toward bifurcating its technological ecosystem, or the deepening domestic crackdown exemplified by expansive surveillance of Chinese citizens, and internment of ethic Uighurs in “re-education” facilities.
These structural issues in the relationship and solicitude over domestic issues remain core challenges to moving the relationship beyond a one-dimensional trade relationship, colloquially known as the seikei bunri (separation of politics and economics).
With these dubieties in mind, the Chinese outlook related to the trajectory of Japan-China relations does not seem to be born out of a fundamental change in the relationship at the security and political levels.
The next question we are faced with is the Chinese view concerning the state of Japan-U.S. relations. Here again, the assessment by the Chinese was one of a relationship in peril mostly associated with a perception that the United States is a declining power in the region, that the leadership in the White House is mercurial and not strategic, and that at a fundamental level, the U.S.-Japan relationship is shallow and even unnatural, compared with the deep cultural and historical ties that have existed between Japan and China for thousands of years.
This assessment fails to recognize the deep and enduring institutional ties that exist between Japan and the U.S. It also dismisses the quotidian Japanese commitment to the shared values of democracy, rule of law and freedom of the press, even if flawed.
First and foremost is the Japan-U.S. alliance. This alliance represents not only joint training and a commitment to defend Japan but also decades of strategic dialogue, relationship building and technological exchanges.
For generations, Japan-U.S. relations have enjoyed high-level representation in each other’s countries, deep and pervasive people-to-people exchanges, and open access to each other’s economies, universities, and political and security institutions.
Even under the disruptive tenure of Trump we have seen a deepening of bilateral relations. Illustrative of this deeper cooperation and Japan’s role as a partner of the U.S. in resurrecting the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, and Japan’s leadership in promoting the Free and Open Indo-Pacific Vision (FOIP). Both aim to tether the U.S. to the region and also invest in a rules-based maritime environment that benefits all stakeholders in the region.
In cooperation with the U.S. and Australia, Japan has created a trilateral infrastructure investment partnership for the Indo-Pacific region and worked with the U.S. to strengthen the U.S. commitment to the region in the area of infrastructure and connectivity.
Castigators of Japan’s approach to the Trump administration will argue that Japan is attempting to resuscitate a U.S. partner that is no longer committed to the region, human rights and the core values that the U.S. championed for the past 70 years.
This view is short-sighted. It does not acknowledge the reality that the U.S. can no longer singularly shoulder the burden of maintaining the integrity of the international system without proactive partners. Partners like Japan, Australia, Canada and others recognize that by stepping up to the plate and assisting in maintaining and even contributing to the reshaping of the international order through initiatives such as FOIP, they can secure the institutions that they have benefited from in the post-World War II period.
Rather than an erosion or weakening of the Japan-U.S. relationship, Beijing should understand that Japan-U.S. ties have deepened and broadened. At the same time, Japan has expanded the number and quality of its strategic partnerships throughout the Indo-Pacific to complement and strengthen its existing relationship with the U.S.
Beijing’s perceptions of the state of Japan-China relations and Japan-U.S. relations reflect an aspiration of what they hope to manifest. They are also a gauge of the degree Beijing misunderstands its bilateral relations with its two most important relationships and a misunderstanding of how its domestic, regional and international behavior is perceived abroad.
This leads us to my last question: What can Beijing do to assuage the concerns about China’s rise for Japan and other stakeholders in the Indo-Pacific ahead of Xi’s visit to Japan but also over the coming decades?
In the immediate term, there are several areas Beijing could garner goodwill, such as ceasing incursions into Japan’s territorial waters surrounding the Senkaku Islands. They could remove anti-aircraft systems on the artificial islands in the South China Sea and even open them up to the coast guards of stakeholders in the region.
Other immediate confidence-building measures could include signing an agreement to not use punitive economic tactics when political disagreements occur, as we saw in the post-nationalization of the Senkakus, the post-installation of the THAAD missile defense system in South Korea and the arrest of Huwei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada.
Other swift actions that would accrue credibility in Tokyo and many capitals around the world would be the release of political prisoners. The welcome recent release of Hokkaido University professor Nobu Iwatani is an example that should also include other nationalities such as Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor. By only releasing illegally detained Japanese individuals, the message being sent to Japan and other states is that the goodwill gesture is instrumental and not indicative of a broader change in behavior.
Over the short to medium-term, an expansion of the quality and quantity of third country infrastructure cooperation is something Beijing should bring to the table in March. This would serve to build trust, contribute to development in recipient countries, and provide jobs to both countries.
Beijing could also curry favor in Tokyo and other capitals by fully endorsing the so-called Data Free Flow with Trust initiative, and making concrete and implementable proposals to cooperate in the areas of artificial intelligence and 5G technology. This initiative could be strengthened by agreeing to establish an international framework spearheaded by China and Japan to create the ethical architecture by which these transformative technologies develop.
Opportunities to improve Japan-China relations are plentiful. The conundrum for Beijing is how to move from myth to reality in understanding its bilateral relations and how its actions are understood by others.
Stephen R. Nagy (@nagystephen1) is a senior associate professor at the International Christian University and a visiting fellow at the Japan Institute for International Affairs.