Shinzo Abe’s Balancing Act with China

Prime Minister Abe has finished his official visit to China. Both governments underlined historical success of the visit by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing after seven years’ interval. Although the intensifying trade conflict, or the so-called “trade war” between the US and China is impressive, the fact that the second and the third largest economies met officially at this timing deserves serious attention in the midst of dynamic changes in Asian politics.

It is true that year 2018 commemorated the fortieth year of the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and PRC singed in 1978. However, the reason why the Japanese Prime Minister paid a visit to China after long absence was not just formality. Drastically changing global politics and economy never allows both leaders to be indifferent to the mounting uneasy bilateral relations.

The Japan-China relations became deteriorated in these years, especially after the Senkaku territorial issue and Xi Jinping’s ascendency to the supreme power in November 2012. Coincidently, Abe came back to power one month later in December 2012 but their formal relation remained low-profile.

However, in view of the chilling relationship between the US and China in these years and months it became inevitable for both Japanese and Chinese leadership to readjust mutual foreign and trade policy. The official invitation was made by the Chinese side, but both had their own calculations.

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First, opinions of Japanese business circles are divided, but not necessary anti-Chinese, especially as the “One Road and One Belt” policies are concerned. Of course, in some areas the two countries’ interests collided, like infrastructure business, or bullet train exports to Indonesia or other third countries. In turn, the Chinese “One Road and One Belt” policy is far from solid, nor consolidated, and not immune from criticism. Monopolistic character of policy sometimes collided with local discontents.

In its turn, PM Abe’s leadership on One Belt and One Road policy is strongly supported by the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, or METI, a ministry which is not necessarily hostile towards Chinese OBOR program recognizing it as business opportunities in the third countries By April, Abe’s advisers, like Cabinet Secretary Takaya Imai, revealed their willingness to cooperate with Chinese policies on AIIB and “One Road, One Belt” policy.

Thus, at this visit, both sides agreed on such cooperation program like energy, smart city, innovations on IT, AI and other areas. Both even agreed on the joint energy cooperation on gas fields near the territorially disputed island that had been terminated for almost ten years.

The Chinese have their own calculations. The Trump administration is now retreating to protectionism, while both Japan and China are in favor of more liberal market mechanisms. In view of the trade war with the US, Japan seems reemerging as countervailing, or supplementary power in Asia from the Chinese point of view. Japan is also unhappy with President Trump’s protectionist “America First” trade policy. In all parameters, economic setback of China is not welcome in shaky global economics. Thus, both also agreed to cooperate this time on cross currency swap and other issues.

In a crumbling and unforeseen world, no one can stop good neighboring relations among nations. As Abe said in his UN address, mutual visits between the leaders of Japan and China will add another axle for stability. Thus, president Xi is promising to go to the G20 meeting in Osaka next June, along with President Putin and other leaders.

Still ambiguity remains. Official documents of the Japanese side seldom refer to “One Belt, One Road” Policy in public, especially in third countries like Thailand. The more sensitive problems like historical memory and territorial issues were never touched upon, because the two sides’ positions are still opposite. More importantly, Japanese policy is likely to remain uncertain, if the US-China relations further deteriorate.

Views expressed are of individual Members and Contributors, rather than the Club's, unless explicitly stated otherwise.