Prospects of China-Japan Relations in the Context of China-US Competition

By Zhang Xiaolei

The American factor has become the biggest external variable in the growth of China-Japanrelations. The COVID-19 pandemic is still raging across the globe, accelerating the changes that are unseen in a century. A salient feature of the global landscape is the intensifying competition between China and the US, which is shaping in a profound way the prospects ofChina-Japanrelations.The changes of administration in Japan and the US in 2020 add to the uncertainties in China-Japan relations. In the face ofcrises and opportunities in the fluid global dynamics, China and Japan should act proactively and meet each other halfway to create conditions for cooperation, expand common interests, and enlargethe space for cooperation so as to develop their relations in line with the requirements of the new era.

First, the intensifying China-US competition has not subduedthe trend of China-Japan relations that have kept improving and growing.

In recent years, China-Japan relations have returned to the right track and maintained a sound momentum.In November 2014, the two sides reached a four-point principled consensus on managing their relations, thus starting the process of improvement of bilateral ties.Since then, leaders of the two countries have met on bilateral and multilateral occasions every year, reaching a series of important political consensus.In June 2019, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met on the sidelines of the G20 Osaka Summit and reached a “ten-point consensus” on building China-Japan relations in line with the requirements of the new era.On September 25, 2020, President Xi Jinping had a telephone conversation with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, and the leaders of the two countries further reaffirmed the important consensus and political will to improve and growChina-Japan relations.

The evolution of China-Japan relations shows that the relations are increasingly mature and rational. The Trump administration’s coercion and pressure on Japan and the intensifyingChina-US competition are bothcatalysts for the improvement inChina-Japan relations.The fundamental reason why China-Japan relations can get back on track and continue to improve is that the friendship between the two countries has a deep historical and cultural root, and the development of bilateral relations serves the fundamental interests of the two peoples. The importance of cooperation between the two countries goes beyond the bilateral scope, and the improvement of their relations is conducive to world peace and development.

China-Japan friendship dates back 2,000 years. As early as the Sui and Tang Dynasties, many Japanese envoys, students and monks studied and lived in China.Prince Nagaya, a Japanese statesman of the time, made Buddhistkasayas and presented them to eminent Chinese monks, along with a poem to express his goodwill, which read “Though we live in different lands, the same moon and sky make us one”. This has been a widely told story in China-Japan exchanges. After the outbreak of COVID-19, these poetic lines appeared on the medical supplies donated by Japan to China, which testified to the long history of mutual learning between Chinese and Japanese civilizations.

In the fight against COVID-19, the Chinese and Japanese people not only deepen their understanding of the “community with a shared future for mankind”, but also demonstrate the important value of “harmony and peaceful co-existence” in Oriental civilizations.The two countries helped each other and addressed the hardships together, presenting to the world rich and diverse Oriental cultures, which take pride in the positive thoughts in Confucianism and the philosophy of peaceful coexistence and “harmony under heaven”.
In 2019, the trade volume between China and Japan was US$ 315 billion, and Japan’s accumulated investment in China was US$ 115.7 billion, the largest amongChina’s sources of foreign investment. The two countries recorded 12.795 million mutual visits made by their people and 256 pairs of sister cities. Since the outbreak of COVID-19,China-Japaneconomic and trade cooperation has shown strong resilience. According toChina’s Ministry of Commerce, two-way trade from January to July dropped by 2.2% yearonyear, which was 0.7 percentage points narrower than that from January to June. The monthly import and export volume has recovered since March.In the first three quarters, trade between China and Japan increased by 1.4% yearon year.On November 15, 2020, with the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership Agreement (RCEP), China and Japan made the very first bilateral tariff reduction arrangement, marking a historic breakthrough.

Second, the changes of administration in Japan and the USadduncertainties to the development of China-Japan relations.

Diplomacy builds ondomestic affairs.Government change and transition has an inevitable impact on the continuity and certainty of foreign policy.In 2020, change of administration occurs in both Japan and the US. With the resignation of Prime Minister Abe for health reasons and Joe Biden’s election, Japan and the US find themselves in the post-Abe and post-Trump eras respectively. The Suga administration and the Biden administration will neither do exactly what their predecessors have done nor shape up their China policies overnight. At the same time, changes are expected in the Japan-US alliance afterthe two new administrations take office, which will bring uncertainties to China-Japan relations as they move forward.

Afterassuming the prime ministerial role for the second time, Abe devoted efforts to strengthening Japan’s autonomy on the diplomatic front by taking advantage of hisextensive family connections and rich diplomatic experience, which has boosted Japan’s international profile. Unlike Abe, Suga, with a humble background and limited diplomatic experience, might not be as nimble as his predecessor diplomatically. It remains to be seen whether he can resist pressure at home and abroad and continue Abe’s “coordination”policy with China. This naturally increases uncertainties in Japan’s China policy.

First, the Suga administration will, in the short term, stabilize China-Japan relations and continue Abe’s policy of “coordination” with China. Suga came to power with the strong support of ToshihiroNikai, Secretary-General of Liberal Democratic Party of Japan (LDP), and the Komeito Party of the ruling Coalition. As these forces are friendly to China, Suga will focus on maintaining stability in the China policy.On September 12, 2020, Suga expressed his view on the China policy at the party leader election seminar held by the Japan National Press Club.He opposed Shigeru Ishiba’s proposal to build a NATO-like military cooperation system in Asia, which would be understood as a move to encircle China;high-level dialogues should be used to stake Japan’s claims and resolve longstanding issues between the two countries; the priorities set by the two governments should be properly delivered, including the Chinese leader’s visit to Japan. As the most urgent task is tackling COVID-19, it is premature to discuss the agenda of the visit.

Second, if Suga failed to deliver impressiveresults in managing the pandemic and restarting the economy among other core domestic issues, his foreign policy space will be greatly reduced, and the stability of his China policy will be undermined. This would be the first and foremost risk forChina-Japan relations.According to thesurvey conducted by Kyodo News on September 16 to 17, 2020,66% of the respondents supported Suga’s domestic policies. However, one should not be over-optimistic. The overall economic conditionsare vastly different when Abe came to power at the end of 2012. There was an economic boom for as long as 70-plus months lasting from the second half of 2012 through October 2018. By comparison, Suga took office at a difficult time. The Japanese economy is entering a cycle of recession, weighed down by a host of factors, including the pandemic, consumption tax hike, and postponement of the Olympics. If Suga’s economic policy were not to work out well, he might be another LDP prime minister that ends up with a short-lived cabinet. If this happens, Japan’s foreign policy will be greatly suppressed, making it hard to coordinate on the China policy.

Third, if Suga failed to bring the situation under control and yielded to the mounting pressure from the US, he may turn aggressive on the China policy as a way to reassure the conservatives within the LDP. The US isstepping up its efforts to coerce and win over Japan in a joint effort to suppress China through“alliance of democracy”, “alliance of science and technology” and“alliance of rules”. As a new hand on foreign policy, Suga will work hard to make up for his weakness to stabilize his administration and build self-confidence. In the face of setbacks in delivering domestic policies and maximum pressure from the US, Suga may break way from conventional foreign policy and aim for diplomatic achievements in his own style.

In addition to the increasing uncertainty in Japan’s domesticand external affairs, the Japan-US alliance is also subject to adjustment after Biden takes office.The international community, especially the Japanese political and academic community, expects Biden to shift away from Trump’s unilateral approach that sidelines US alliesandreturn to multilateralism and revive alliances. This means that the Japan-US alliance, which was strainedbecause of the issue of military expenses sharing during the Trump administration, may be partly repaired. In the face of China’s rise and growing structural pressure, Japan and the US still have strong strategic needs for one another. “Relying on the US for security”remains a core pillar of Japan’s external strategy for a long time to come.On November 12, 2020, when Suga and Biden spoke on the phone, both sides emphasized that the Indo-Pacific strategy would be strengthened on the basis of Japan-US alliance, and claimed that Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty applies to the Diaoyu Island. This indicates that the Japan-US alliance is partly coming back to the strategic goals set by the Obama administration.

While reviving the Japan-US alliance, Japan is also strengthening its self-defense capabilities, putting up a multilateral security network in the region, and substantially improving the role of ASEAN and India in its regional strategy and China strategy. The security strategy has begun to transform from“one singlewheel”, “bilateral defense” and “US dominates and Japan subordinates” to “twowheels, “leading in the region” and “US-Japan integration”.This Cold-War thinking on security will continue to weigh on the healthy development of China-Japan security relations.

Third, China and Japan should take the initiative and meet each other halfway to shapetheir relations that meet the requirements of the new era.

Although China-Japan relations have embarked on the track of improvement, the social environment and public opinion on both sides still need to be improved.With the escalating competition between China and the US, there is a tendency of politicizationin Japan’s domestic perception of China, which in some cases is swayed by irrational sentiments.How to guide the people of the two countries towards an objective and rational mutual understanding, and to view and engage in China-Japan relations with a positive attitude is an important practical issue facing both China and Japan.

First, China and Japan should learn from each other’s cultures and sustain their friendship to contribute “wisdom of the East” to the community of shared future for mankind.In November 2019, China and Japan established a high-level consultation mechanism for people-to-people exchange, which is a top-level design for strengthening high-level people-to-people exchanges between the two countries in the new era.China and Japan should draw from their profound historical and cultural heritages to promote cultural exchanges in the new era.The deep historical and cultural bond between China and Japan is a tremendous asset that should be cherished and taken forward.Chinese characters, rice cultivation and tea ceremony are the shared cultural symbols of the two countries. The Analects, the Romance of Three Kingdoms and Tang poetry are the shared cultural wealth.In the new era, China and Japan need to seek common values from these profound historical and cultural heritages, and draw inspirations for communication from the ancient wisdom of benevolence and good neighborliness.

Second, China and Japan should take the signing of RCEP as an opportunity to upgrade bilateral and multilateral economic and trade cooperation.Not long ago, the Fifth Plenary Session of the 19th CPC Central Committee was successfully concluded. The most important outcome of this meeting was the adoption of the Proposal of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China on Formulating the 14th Five-Year Plan for National Economic and Social Development and the Long-term Goals for 2035, which will be the compass for China’s economic and social development in the next five years or even longer. China is pursuing a new development paradigm with domestic circulation as the mainstay and domestic and international circulations reinforcing each other.China’s opening-up and development at a higher level will undoubtedly present a great opportunity for Japan’s economy. In his recent policy address, Prime Minister Suga proposed to develop the digital economy as akey measure to revitalize Japan’s economy, which is consistent with China’s development vision. China and Japan can use innovative means to tap their potential and strengthen cooperation in priority areas such as third-party markets, finance, and science and technology innovation, so as to upgrade China-Japan cooperation.
Third, China and Japan should build constructive security relations on the basis of the current air-sea liaison mechanism. As the US isratcheting up strategic pressure on China and promoting the security cooperation with Japan under the Indo-Pacific framework, China and Japan are facing growing risksin maritime security. In the absence of the implementation of crisis management mechanisms, there will be higher possibility of local conflicts.China and Japan should use all diplomatic means, including existing bilateral security mechanisms such as China-Japan high-level political dialogue, high-level consultation on maritime affairs, and China-Japan strategic and security dialogue. The two sides should also speed up consultations onthe hotline setting methods and procedures in China-Japan air-sea liaison mechanism, so as to avoid irreparable consequences such as escalation of conflicts caused by miscalculations.

Zhang Xiaolei is Deputy Director and Associate Research Fellow of the Department of Japanese Politics, Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.