China-Japan Relations: Setting Sights on the Larger Interests and Seeking Progress on the Basis of Stability

By Hu Jiping

With Premier Li Keqiang’s visit to Japan in May 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s visit to China in October 2018, and President Xi Jinping’s attendance at theG20 Osaka Summit in June this year, China-Japan relations have moved out of the bottom and onto the normal track of growth. Before the Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua recently finished his term of office in Japan, he was invited to a luncheon at Prime Minister Abe’s residence on April 16th. On May 7th, Prime Minister and Mrs Abe, former prime ministers Yoshiro Mori and Fukuda Yasuo, Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai, Komeito Party Leader Natsuo Yamaguchi were among the nearly 1,000 Japanese guests from all walks of life at Ambassador Cheng’s farewell reception. On May 9th, Ambassador Cheng was the first foreign guest received by the new emperor of Japan. Through such unusual moves, the Japanese government sent a clear signal of its willingness to improve relations with China. The foreign ministries of the two countries are reportedly consulting on Prime Minister Abe’s another visit to China this year and President Xi Jinping’s upcoming official visit to Japan.

The encouraging developments in China-Japan relations are, without any doubt, the result of joint efforts by both sides. The bilateral relationship had fallen into the lowest depth since its normalization in 1972, following the “island purchase” by the Japanese government in September 2012 and Prime Minister Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013. While holding fast to its principles, China did not change its positive and open policy toward Japan. When meeting a 3000-strong delegation from Japan in May 2015, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed that the crimes of aggression committed by Japanese militarists shall never be covered up and that the true history shall never be distorted. He also reiterated that China attaches importance to developing relations with Japan and that such a basic policy has not changed and will not change in the future. His statement demonstrated the Chinese government’s willingness to improve its relationship with Japan and maintain its stable growth. In May 2017, Japan sent LDP Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai to participate in the first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in Beijing, which, in a way, indicated the change in Japan’s position on the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), as it had been critical of the BRI prior to that. In his letter delivered by Mr. Nikai to President Xi, Prime Minister Abe expressed the hope to build a stable and friendly relationship between the two countries. In the following June, Abe indicated at an international forum in Tokyo that Japan is conditionally cooperative on the BRI. Such positive interactions set the stage for the exchange of visits by top leaders. 

Secondly, another important driver of China-Japan relations is their shared interests and need for cooperation. The strong complementarity between the two economies means great space for cooperation. As China’s per capita GDP increases and domestic market fast expands, it has become the world’s fastest growing and most promising market, holding great appeal to Japan, a big nation of trade, and its companies. Although economic cooperation runs on its own laws, and there are times when China-Japan relations were cold politically but warm economically,  it goes without saying that economic cooperation is still obviously affected by political relations. Before 2011, China-Japan trade was generally on an upward trajectory. Starting from 2012, however, it had been on the decline for five years in a row, from US$ 344.9 billion in 2011 down to US$ 270.5 billion in 2016. Inevitably, there was an economic reason. But more importantly, it was weighed down by strained political relations. When Prime Minister Abe visited China in October 2018, he brought over 500 business leaders on the delegation, which showed the keen interest of the Japanese economic community in improving relations with China. 

Thirdly, the uncertainties caused by US policies further encouraged China and Japan to improve their relations. On the campaign trail, Trump vowed to withdraw from the TPP and demanded American allies pay for the costs of American troops stationed in their countries. Such statements already got Japan on its nerves. After Trump took office, the unilateral trade policies he has pursued against WTO rules deal a heavy blow to global economic growth. China and Japan, two big countries that run huge trade surplus against the US, are America’s targets. China has been under enormous tariff pressure from the US. Japan has also been threatened with additional tariffs on steel, aluminum and cars. As the US asks its allies to pay for America’s protection, Japan’s trust in its alliance with the US has plunged to a new historical low. However, it is the uncertainties caused by the US policies that compel China and  Japan to  increase cooperation.

The sound momentum of improvement in China-Japan relations has given rise to expectations for the two countries’ cooperation. That said, there are still some lingering obstacles and issues that keep the relations from going deeper. 

Three long-standing issues — history, territory and Taiwan— still exist to varying degrees, exerting an impact on China-Japan relations. On the issue of history after Abe visited the Yasukuni Shrine in 2013, there was a frenzy among Japanese political figures who were eager to follow suit. As the bilateral relations improve, there have been few Japanese cabinet members visiting the shrine. But as shown in Abe’s speech on the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War in 2015, Japan still has a less than clear understanding of its history of aggression. It will take long-term efforts for the two countries to reach a common understanding on history. One cannot rule out the possibility that frictions over this issue may still resurface and set back the relations. On the issue of territory The two countries have activated the sea-air liaison mechanism which can help to avoid unintended conflicts. But Japan’s Democratic Party government has backtracked and denied the consensus on shelving disputes. Such a situation has yet to improve. The Japanese media has consistently described the patrol by China’s public service vessels as “intruding into Japan’s territorial waters”. This has harmed the sentiments between people of the two countries. On the issue of Taiwan, Japan renamed its interchange institution in Taiwan, thus undercutting the improvement of China-Japan relations.  

On practical cooperation, during his visit to China in October 2018, Prime Minister Abe praised the BRI as a promising vision and Japan renamed the Indo-Pacific “Strategy” as a “vision” to avoid provoking China. At the first forum on China-Japan Third Party Market Cooperation in October 2018, companies and relevant departments of the two sides reached 52 agreements on a wide range of areas including infrastructure, finance, logistics and IT, worth more than US$ 18 billion. It is beyond any doubt that China and Japan should have broader space for cooperation given the size of their economies. Japan’s Minister of Economy, Trade and Industry Hiroshige Seko said at the forum that the Japan-China economic and trade relations were at a critical period of transitioning from competition to cooperation and the forum would be a new starting point for Japan-China economic cooperation. However, it may take a long time and mutual adaptation for the two countries to make the shift from competition to cooperation.

The trust deficit in strategic and security areas is the most difficult issue that exerts the deepest impact on China-Japan relations. For seven years since 2013, the Abe administration has increased defense budget year by year. Strengthening the military is seen by Japan an important way to pursue its goals as a political power. It however used China’s growing military strength as an excuse, when it converted the helicopter carrier JS Izumo into an aircraft carrier capable of carrying F-35B fighter jets and decided to purchase F-35 jets in large quantities. This shows that there is still a severe lack of trust in security between the two countries. 

Undoubtedly, long-standing issues that remain unresolved, insufficient motivation for cooperation, and lack of security trust pose risks to the future development of bilateral relations. As the relations get back onto the right track, the two sides must think long and hard about how to make the friendly and cooperation relationship sustainable and stable.

First and foremost, China and Japan should set their eyes on the larger interests, appreciate the strategic importance of the relations and keep to the right direction. As General Secretary Xi Jinping articulated at the Central Foreign Affairs Work Conference in January this year, “The world is undergoing major changes unseen in a century”. This means the profound changes are taking place on the international landscape. The traditional world order is being challenged. And enormous uncertainties exist in global politics and economy. At such a fluid time, China and Japan must enhance cooperation to maintain regional and global stability and prosperity. In his speech to the Diet in January 2018, Abe said “Japan and China share significant responsibilities for the peace and prosperity of the region, and maintain an inseparable relationship. We will fulfill the expectations of the international community by developing our friendly relationship in a stable manner from a broad perspective.”According to the 2019 Diplomatic Bluebook released by the Japanese government, a stable relationship with China is very important for the overall interests. This shows that Japan is more inclined to look at the larger interests in assessing the importance of China-Japan relations. If the two countries continue to look at the larger interests when making policies, that will provide political safeguards for the bilateral relations to maintain long-term stability. 

Second, the two countries must strengthen strategic communication and increase security trust. When meeting Prime Minister Abe in October 2018, President Xi said that the two sides should pursue deeper strategic communication, make full use of the multi-level and multi-channel dialogue mechanisms, have correct understandings of each other’s development and strategic intentions, faithfully implement the political consensus of “being each other’s cooperation partners and not posing threats to each other”, strengthen positive interactions, and increase political trust. It is reported that Japan has proposed to China the establishment of a China-Japan foreign minister/defense minister consultation mechanism (2+2) so as to enhance security trust between the two countries. This means that the security dialogue, which was launched in 1993 and upgraded to the vice-ministerial level in 2002, may be further upgraded and held on a regular basis. 

Third, the two sides should unlock the potential, deepen practical cooperation, and expand common interests. China and Japan are the world’s second and third largest economies, each at different stages of development with respective advantages. Being close geographically and culturally, the two countries enjoy not only tremendous cooperation potential in traditional manufacturing and services, but also broad space for cooperation in new technologies such as autonomous driving and artificial intelligence. Only through cooperation can the two sides keep expanding common interests and provide impetus and safeguard for bilateral relations to grow steadily. 

Fourth, while managing sensitive issues, China and Japan should set their eyes on the long term to remove barriers to bilateral relations. The two sides should take positive steps to enhance dialogue, manage differences and prevent sensitive issues related to history, territory and Taiwan from sparking bilateral conflicts and suspending the development of bilateral relations. Additionally, to sustain the steady growth of bilateral relations, the two countries should be proactive in addressing potential risks that may escalate into bigger problems. For example, the two sides may pursue joint research and exchange on the issue of history to identify historical facts and deepen mutual understanding. On the issue of territory, the two sides should be clear-eyed about their differences and carry out positive dialogues, laying foundation and building conducive environment for resolving issues in the future. 

The returning to the right track of China-Japan relations have not come easily. As the international situation continues to evolve profoundly, the importance of China-Japan relations will only grow. China and Japan should seize historical opportunities, keep to the right direction, consolidate the foundation of the relationship by expanding common interests, and build a stable relationship with a view to the long term, thus creating benefits for the people of both countries and contributing to regional and global peace and prosperity. 

Hu Jiping is Assistant President, Research Fellow and Director of the Institute of Japanese Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations.