Japan-China ties getting closer because of Trump’s policies

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe with Chinese President Xi Jinping before a meeting in Beijing. Photo: Xinhua

Lord Palmerston (1784-1865), British Prime Minister once said: “Nations have no permanent friends or allies; they only have permanent interests”. The meeting between Japanese Prime Minister and Chinese President on 25th October, in my view, is an illustration of this doctrine.

Without fanfare, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe arrived in Beijing for the first formal bilateral visit by a Japanese leader to China in nearly7 years. Though nominally intended to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the visit culminated a quiet process of mutual accommodation over the past year.

The process reflects realism and self-interest on both sides. Throughout the leadership tenures of Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, political-military rivalry, enduring historical grievances, and (more recently) competing conceptions of Asian infrastructural development have dominated relations between the continent’s two most important nations. But both leaders exhibit growing disquiet about larger current international trends that could seriously harm the interests of both states.

Abe’s three-day trip, to China which began 25th October, augurs well and sets up the possibility that Xi will visit Japan next year. Japanese Prime Minister was accorded a red-carpet treatment in China.

Japan’s Shinzo Abe  reportedly inspected troops off Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on Oct 26 (2018) during his visit to China as ties further improve and the two countries face trade challenges from US President Donald Trump. The last official visit to Beijing by a Japanese prime minister was in 2011.

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang greeted Abe as Japan’s flag flew outside the opulent Great Hall of the People across from Tiananmen Square, and they reviewed an honour guard before going inside for talks.

Relations between Asia’s two biggest economies have improved in recent years after they sunk to new lows in 2012 when Tokyo “nationalised” disputed islands claimed by Beijing.

The relationship has rapidly warmed up as Trump has slapped massive tariffs on China while targeting Japanese exports in his effort to cut US trade deficits, despite touting his personal bonds with Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Analysts say that Donald Trump is the most disruptive American president in memory. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after his election was the first step in a series of actions that have weakened the institutions and policies enabling East Asia’s unparalleled economic advancement for more than a half-century. But Trump, first as businessman and now as president, argues that globalization has enabled others to exploit the United States, thus requiring major departures from established U.S. policy.

Trump’s ire has long been directed at Japan, South Korea, and the European Union, but his major target is now China. In this connection, it is worth noting that Vice President Mike Pence’s October 4 speech at the Hudson Institute—depicts China as a long-term threat to U.S. interests. The US administration’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States is an early move in this process, and creates the possibility of an open-ended trade war across the Pacific.

The Trump administration’s resort to unilateralism has also impinged directly on Japan. The United States now imposes tariffs on Japanese exports to the United States and threats to extend the tariffs to Japanese auto exports, exerts pressures on Japan to agree to bilateral trade negotiations. President Trump’s open-ended cultivation of North Korea, all in the absence of any signs that its leader Kim Jong-un is prepared to forego his country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, adds an additional and highly worrisome development for Tokyo.

Close relations with the United States have almost always been the first order of business for Japan. Moreover, no foreign leader has invested more political and personal capital in relations with Donald Trump than Shinzo Abe. Though close relations with the United States remain essential to Tokyo, Abe is seeking ways to limit the potential damage of Trump’s policy moves, while also demonstrating a capacity to protect Japanese interests independent of the United States.

Japan and China have major responsibility for ensuring regional security and will work together on the North Korea issue, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly said.  Abe, speaking to reporters in a briefing with China’s Premier Li Keqiang, also said Japan was committed to normalizing diplomatic relations with North Korea.  But several issues, including North Korea’s kidnapping of Japanese citizens, must be resolved before bilateral relations were normalized, he said.

Abe and Xi reportedly discussed how to boost economic cooperation between the world’s second and third largest economies.   Abe brought along delegates from 500 Japanese companies, which are eager for increased access to China’s massive market, while Beijing is interested in Japanese technology and corporate know-how.

 “Though the US is quite an influential factor in China-Japan ties, the effect is limited,” China’s nationalistic Global Times said in an editorial.  “If Beijing and Tokyo intend to plan their future bilateral relationship based on Washington’s attitude, they will only get lost,” the state-run daily said.

Abe and Xi reportedly focussed on a range of potential deals, including joint investments in infrastructure in regional nations including Indonesia and the Philippines.

The ties between the two countries have improved after an awkward 2014 encounter between Abe and Xi on the sidelines of a summit. Thereafter there have been ministerial visits by both sides and a softening of rhetoric Chinese Prime Minister Li visited Tokyo in May this year.

Abe and Li already met on during a reception to celebrate the signing of the treaty that put Japanese and Chinese relations back on track after World War II.

At the event, Li called for the countries to “jointly promote regional peace” and “safeguard multilateralism and free trade,” according to Chinese state broadcaster.

For his part, Abe said: “Japan and China play an irreplaceable role in the economic development of Asia and even of the world” and both sides should work together to “promote world peace and prosperity”, according to Chinese state broadcaster.

Before heading to Beijing, Abe said he would also discuss North Korea and territorial frictions - calling to make “the East China Sea a sea of peace, friendship and cooperation”.

Just days before Abe’s trip, Tokyo lodged an official complaint after Chinese ships cruised around the disputed islands that Tokyo calls the Senkaku and Beijing labels the Diaoyu islands.

China has long denounced Japan for what it says is an insufficiently contrite attitude towards its role in World War II.

But ahead of the trip, Beijing has taken a more cordial stance than it has in the past.

Japanese media have reported Abe is hoping the visit will produce a soft power win in the form of some “panda” diplomacy, with zoos in Sendai and Kobe apparently angling for new addition.

Barrister Harun ur Rashid, Former Bangladesh Ambassador to the UN, Geneva.

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