With China-Japan Relations at a New Starting Point, How can the two Countries Build a Future-oriented Strategic Partnership?
I. Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan for the first time to promote the continuous improvement of Sino-Japanese relations.
On May 8-11, 2018, Premier Li Keqiang visited Tokyo to attend the 7th China-Japan-ROK Leaders' Meeting and paid an official visit to Japan at the invitation of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This is the first visit to Japan by a Chinese Premier ineight years (the last official visit was that of then Premier Wen Jiabao in May 2010). It is also the first time that a Chinese leader set foot on Japan's territory since the bilateral relationship fell to a historic low due to the Diaoyu Islands disputesduring the period of 2010-2013.
During Premier Li Keqiang’s visit, he held talks with his counterpart Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, called on Emperor Akihito, and met with heads of the Japanese Parliament (known as the “Diet”) and opposition parties. Premier Li also delivered a speech at the reception commemorating the 40thanniversary of the China-Japan Peace and FriendshipTreaty. Besides Tokyo, he visited Hokkaido and attended the "China-Japan Governors Forum" held in Sapporo, capital city of Hokkaido together with Prime Minister Abe.
During the meetings, Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese leaders exchanged views on enhancing mutual strategic and political trust, strengthening practical exchanges and cooperation, properly managing differences, and pushing the China-Japan relations back to the normal track. They reached broad consensus on promoting bilateral economic cooperation and exchanges in the cultural, media and youth fields and at local levels,and agreed to launch cooperation in third-party markets.
The restoration of contacts, dialogues, and mutual visits between leaders of the two countries is a key step in improving the bilateral relations. Since 2014, Chinese leaders havemade tremendous efforts to lift the Sino-Japanese relationship out of its lowest point in decades. President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe several timeson the sidelines of multilateral events. They exchanged views on ways tojointly stabilize and improve Sino-Japanese relations, and reached broad political consensus including the "Four-point Principle Consensus" of 2014. The official visit by Premier Li to Japan injected new impetus to the improvement of China-Japan relations and set clear directions for its future development.
II. The current improvement in Sino-Japanese relations is the result of the joint efforts of bothsides and is in line with the expectations of regional countries and the international community.
Sino-Japanese relations have entered a process of continuous improvement. Despite some noises from time to time, improvement and development have been the main feature of bilateral relations over recent months, thanks to the joint efforts of both sides.
This improvement is not only inseparable from China’s own steady development and growth, leaders’ personal efforts, and the unremitting diplomaticefforts, but also has to do with the Abe administration’s new policy approach towards China in the face of internal and external pressures, as its previous containment and confrontational policieshad failed. The improvement is also reflective of the profound foundation of Sino-Japanese relations and is in line with the common interests of the two peoplesand those of regional countries and the international community at large.
From the perspective of China, its policy towards Japan is marked by consistency. China regards Japan as an important close neighbor and always attaches great importance to the development of its relations with Japan. China is committed to comprehensively advancing China-Japan strategic mutually beneficial relations by firmly upholding the general direction of peace, friendship and cooperation between the two countries. The Chinese side has repeatedly stressed to the Japanese side that this is an important established policy and will not change as a result of momentary events. Even during the period when bilateral relations encountered the most serious situation since the normalization of diplomatic ties in the past few years, the Chinese side still insisted on maintaining the right direction for the development of Sino-Japanese relations. China has now entered a new era of Socialism with Chinese characteristics, facingan urgent task of building a moderately prosperous society in all respects; China needs to create a more favorable neighboring and international environment for further deepening reforms and opening up to the world. Therefore, it has the will and patience to actively bring Sino-Japanese relations back to the normal track.
On the Japanese side, its economic circles and the moderate and stable schools within the ruling Liberal Democratic Party(LDP) are the endogenous driving forces that prompted Abe’s government to improve relations with China. They believe that as China continues to grow and rise, a China policy of blind containment will not only be ineffective, but also run against Japan’s fundamental interests in that failure to improve Sino-Japanese relations will cause Japan to miss out on the huge economic opportunities brought by China’s higher quality development and the Belt andRoad Initiative. At the same time, in the context of the US Trump administration's adjustment of its Asia-Pacific strategy coupled with its strong protectionist tendencies, and drastic changes in the situation on the Korean Peninsula, Japan’s neighborhood diplomacy is facing many challenges and its anxiety has increased. In order to provide better options for Japan’s national security strategy, altering the confronting-China policy and improving relations with China thus became the inevitable policy choice of the Abe government.
Judging from the fundamentals of China-Japan relations, China and Japan are each other's most important partners in economic and trade cooperation. The bilateral tradevolume has been maintained at around US$300 billion in recent years. Japan is China's largest source of foreign investment, and China is Japan's major overseas market. The two countries have set up a direct settlement system of their respective currencies. There were frequent people-to-people and cultural exchanges. In 2017, more than 10 million people traveled between the two countries. The number of sister cities between the two countries reached 345 pairs. There are more than 1,000 flights per week flying between more than 60 cities in the two countries. In short, the interests of China and Japan have become increasingly intertwined, and their interdependence has deepened, which naturally requires the improvement of bilateral relations as soon as possible.
Judging from the regional and international impact of Sino-Japanese relations, the significance and externality of the relations have increasingly exceeded the bilateral scope. As the world’s second and thirdlargest economies, the two countries share common interests and responsibilities in promoting East Asian economic integration, maintaining a free and open international trade system, promoting an open world economy, and improving global governance. Regional countries and the international community are very much looking forward to fast improving relations between China and Japan so that the two countries could work together to meet common global challenges and provide public goods for Asia and the world at large.
III. The Crux of the Sino-Japanese relationship lies not only in long-running sores but also in new structural tensions arising from changes in the international situation.
The ups and downs in Sino-Japanese relations over the past eight years or so is but a new cycle in the process of Sino-Japanese relations marked by multiple challenges since the end of the Cold War. After the normalization of diplomatic ties between China and Japan in 1972, the relationship experienced a rapid development of a honeymoon period of about twenty years. By 1992 when Emperor Akihito visited China, it reached its peak. However, since the end of the Cold War, the Sino-Japanese relationship has entered a period of frequent twists and turns, and it has seen a cycle of “deterioration-improvement” every six or seven years.
The root cause lies in the inherent problems between China and Japan, such as understanding of history during World War II, the Diaoyu Islands disputes, and the Taiwan issue. Moreover, new structuralimbalances formed as a result of the changing international situation after the mid-1990s.
Specifically, there are four structural imbalances: First, due to the decline of common security interests of jointly resisting the Soviet Union’s threat, there has been a so-called “security dilemma”, with increasing mutual suspicion between China and Japan. Second, there is a certain degree of conflict between the two countries' national strategic goals with both attempting to become regional and global leaders. Third, As China’s economic strength approaching and finally surpassing that of Japan, an unprecedented situation in which two powers co-exist in the Asianregion has emerged. Last, the sentiments and feelings of the general public towards each other deteriorated due to the combined factors of political and social conditions in the two countries as well as influence of predominantly negative media coverage.
In the face of the above structural imbalances, almost all the problems between the two countries will be magnified as major issues on which it would be difficult for both countries to make compromises. The words and deeds of one country will be interpreted as being directed against the other.Under such circumstances, the old problems of history, the Diaoyu Islands disputes, and the Taiwan issue have become extremely difficultfor both sides to compromise on, although such problems have always been there and never became major issues hindering the development of bilateral relations during the Cold War era.
IV. The fundamental issue behind the structural imbalances between China and Japan is a matter of perception and mutualcharacterization.
After the Cold War, structural tensions in Sino-Japanese relations started to emerge, and challenges such as history, territory, and maritime issues have cropped up. Behind these structural problems is the lack of mutual trust in political and security spheres. Its roots lie largely in the fact that Japan's perception of China has lagged behind changes in the internal and external situation.
As far as the Japanese side is concerned, how to deal with the rise of China has always been the most important topic of Japan’s foreign policy strategy after the Cold War. In particular, after China’s total economic output surpassed Japan for the first time in 2010; the impact on Japan was so enormous that the “China threat theory” ran rampant. In recent years, as China’s strength continue to grow;the "China threat theory" morphed into theories depicting China as a hegemonic and arrogant power. In fact, Japan misunderstood the direction and goals of China's development. Although the Japanese government under Abe is seeking to adjust its China policy, some political elites and some mainstream media in Japan are still treating China with the old Cold War mentality and pondering all the time on how to constrain China. Such irrational emotions and Cold-War mentality still lingers in Japan’s strategic assessmenton China to this day. This state of affairs is neither in line with the trend of the times, nor accords with the original spirit of the normalization of ties between the two countries 46 years ago. It is even less in line with Japan’s own long-term and fundamental interests.
Whether Japan can change its thinking as soon as possible, properly perceive and position China in its foreign policy, regard China as a cooperation partner rather than an opponent or even adversary,and treat China’s development as an opportunity rather than a challenge or even threat, will largely determine the future development of bilateral relations.
On the Chinese side, it is also an important issue as to how to view Japan’s accelerating efforts to become a “normal state” and achieve political power status after the Cold War. It should be noted that after World War II, Japan’s low profile in international affairs was mainly a result of self-discipline and US restrictions under the US-Japan Alliance. However, after the bursting of Japan's bubble economy in the 1990s and the loss of itstitle of a leading economic power, the aspirations of Japan to be freed from the post-WWII system as a defeated stateand to become a "normal state"were very strong. As a result, the Japanese society tends to be conservative in general. At the same time, pacifism is deeply rooted in Japan. How to deal with a relatively conservative and generally right-leaning Japan and guideit into a responsible political power is a strategic issue that China should seriously consider and actively respond to in its interactions with Japan in the future.
In fact, on the perception issue, as early as in 2008, the two governments signed the fourth political document "Joint Statement on All-round Promotion of Strategic Relationship of Mutual Benefit", which set the tone for the bilateral relations in the new century. In the Joint Statement the two sides reaffirmed that “the two countries are cooperation partners and not threats to each other”, and "support each other's peaceful development."However, it is not difficult to see from the development of Sino-Japanese relations in recent years that this important consensus has not been effectively implemented. In particular, the Japanese side has not been able to solve the fundamental issue of how to correctly perceive China's development.
V. The improvement of Sino-Japanese relations requires that the two countries truly implement the politicalunderstandingof being “cooperative partners and not threats to each other ”and build afuture-oriented strategic partnership.
This year marks the 40th anniversary of the China-JapanTreaty of Peace and Friendship, which presents an important opportunity for improvement and development of the bilateral relationship. Whether China-Japan relations can eventually embark on the track of healthy and sound development depends on whether the two sides can increase political mutual trust and grasp the right direction from a strategic and long-term perspective.
Under the new situation, what is needed between China and Japan is trust and cooperation, instead of suspicion and confrontation. The two sides should work hard to develop positive interactions inpolitical, security areas and quickly identify a new mutual characterization that is consistent with the trend of the times and their respective national interests.
The author believes that as Sino-Japanese relations have taken a new starting point, bilateral relations should be upgraded from the “Strategic Relationship of Mutual Benefit” established ten years ago, which is simply based on interests exchange, to a more positive direction and a higher level. In short, a future-oriented "Strategic Cooperation Partnership” based on the notion of a community with a shared future should be built in the future.
To this end,the two sides should focus on improving and developing Sino-Japanese relations in four priority areas, lay a solid foundation and foster the right atmosphere for building a "Strategic Cooperation Partnership."
The First is to strengthen strategic communication between the two sides and continuously increase political mutual trust.
The ups and downs of Sino-Japanese relations in the past several years has largely been the result of the misperception of Japanese political leaders on China. In the future, the Japanese side should conscientiously think through it, view China's development in a rational way, and eliminate Cold War and zero-sum mentality.
The damage of political mutual trust between the two sides needs to be repaired through various levels of exchanges. High-level contacts have important leading roles to play in improving the bilateral relations. At the end of this year or the first half of next year, China will host the eighth China-Japan-Republic of Korea Leaders’ Meeting. Japanese Prime Minister Abe isexpected to attend the meeting and possibly make his first official visit to China. In June 2019, Japan will hold a G-20summit meeting, and Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the meeting. The two sides should strengthen high-level strategic communications and enhance the top-level design of the bilateral relations by seizing the important opportunity of this year and next year.
At the same time, exchanges between governments, political parties, and parliaments should be maintained. In particular, the two countries should step up political and security dialogue and exchanges. They should communicate in a timely and candid manner and enhance dialogue on major issues in bilateral relations, domestic and foreign policies and development objectives to deepen trust, dispel misperception and prevent strategic misjudgment. Only through such endeavorscould the two sides get closer, instead of drifting away.
The second is to effectively control differences and tensions and handle sensitive issues properly. The fundamental issues, such as the historical issue and territory disputes, areproblems that cannot be completely solved in the short to mediumterm. This requires the two parties to maintain patience and strive to find effective ways to control and manage the differences, so that these conflicts will not be intensified and will not affect the overall development of bilateral relations.
The history issue and the Taiwan issue arethe political foundation of Sino-Japanese relations. The Japanese side should abide by the spirit of the four political documents signed by China and Japan and its own commitments, carefully and properly handle potential risks and challenges on the history issue, the East China Sea and the Diaoyu Islands.
Both parties should earnestly abide by the spirit of the “Four-point Principle Consensus” reached in 2014 andbetter use the "High-level Consultation on Maritime Affairs" and the "Air and Sea Liaison Mechanism" signed during the visit to establish a good crisis management mechanism to jointly safeguard peace and stability in the East China Sea.
The third is to deepen economic and practical cooperation to achieve mutual benefits. Economic and trade cooperation has always been the "ballast stone" of China-Japan relations. In the new situation, it should also play its role as a "propeller". The two sides should actively carry out cooperation in areas such as energy conservation, environmental protection and advanced manufacturing,emerging service industries and innovation fields, and promote the deep integration of the industrial chain between China and Japan to achieve common prosperity.
At the same time, Asian economic integration cannot be achieved without the leading role of China and Japan as the two largest economies in the region. The two sides should join hands in promoting the China-Japan-ROKFree Trade Agreement and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) negotiations, and utilize the Belt and Road Initiative as a new platform to carry out third-party market cooperation and promote regional economic development and integration. During Premier Li’s recent visit, the two countries signed a"MOU on Developing Third-Party Market Cooperation," which provided institutional guarantees for China-Japan cooperation under the Belt and Road Initiative.
The fourth is to strengthen people-to-people friendly exchanges and increase the positive sentiments between the two peoples.
The key to sound relations between states lies in the affinity between their peoples, which largely stems from mutual understanding. The foundation of Sino-Japanese friendship lies in the people, and its future is also in the hands of the two peoples.
On the one hand, the people-to-people and cultural exchanges between China and Japan have a very broad foundation with a long history. People-to-people friendship is a fine tradition of Sino-Japanese relations and has played an important role in the normalization of diplomatic relations between China and Japan. After the establishment of diplomaticrelations, friendship groups and people with vision from all walks of life of the two countries have vigorously carried out friendly exchanges and actively participated in the promotion of exchanges and cooperation in various fields, which played a crucial role in promoting the overall bilateral relations.
On the other hand, it must be noted that due to the deterioration of political relations in recent years, misperception, lack of understanding between the general public of both countries and mutual resentment have even reached worrying levels.The two governments must attach great importance to this issue and actively create conditions to further release the great potential of the people-to-people exchanges, promote exchanges between young people, grassroots groups, and enrich the contents of exchanges that resonate with the people. The campaign will lead more people to care about and support Sino-Japanese relations and thus improve the social foundation for the improvement of China-Japan relations.
Yan Shenchun is an Observer for International Affairs.