On April 24 in Beijing, Liberal Democratic Party Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai was greeted in the Great Hall of the People by a smiling President Xi Jinping. Nikai grasped Xi’s outstretched right hand before giving him an official letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. Beginning “Dear Your Excellency President Xi Jinping,” the letter called for “the building of a new relationship between Japan and China.” Shin Kawashima specially for The Yomiuri Shimbun.
During the meeting with Nikai, Xi said, “Japan-China relations are back on the road to normalcy and constructive momentum is emerging.” He also agreed to travel to Japan for the Group of 20 summit meeting in Osaka in June.
Xi’s visit to Japan will be his first since assuming China’s top office in March 2013 and the first by a Chinese head of state in roughly 8½ years. Tokyo also intends to invite Xi to Japan as a state guest following the Sokuirei-Seiden-no-gi ceremony for the Emperor’s enthronement at the Seiden State Hall at the Imperial Palace on Oct. 22.
Abe, while visiting Rome on April 24 during his tour of Europe, attended a conference and luncheon meeting with Italian Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte. A serious discussion unfolded about the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing’s large-scale economic partnership strategy.
Italy is the only country from the Group of Seven major economies to sign a memorandum of understanding to join the Belt and Road. Rome has vigorously moved to improve its ties with Beijing, such as by allowing Chinese companies to partake in the development of the Port of Genoa, one of Italy’s major maritime hubs.
During the talks, Abe told Conte, “The international community’s unity in encouraging China to take on a constructive role is crucial.” On his tour, Abe sought to persuade countries seeking closer ties with Beijing to take their foot off the pedal.
Abe’s approach to diplomacy with China — characterized by conflicting desires for friendship and containment — has developed amid an evolving relationship between Beijing and Washington.
The friendly relations the two countries enjoyed under U.S. President Barack Obama have given way to antagonism over trade and other issues since President Donald Trump’s second year in office. China has started pushing for reconciliation with Japan, softening stances criticized as being at odds with the global order and indicating its intent to emphasize international cooperation.
After taking a hard line on China following the inauguration of his second Cabinet, Abe has taken notice of the apparent changes in Beijing’s posture and made strides toward a path of friendship. The belief among Japan’s government and business community that the Chinese market will be critical to future growth has also encouraged improved relations.
In contrast to this atmosphere of friendship, the G20 appears to favor containment.
With the explosive growth of e-commerce and other industries, Abe will be looking for cooperation at the G20 toward the establishment of what he calls the “Osaka Track,” a regime for international governance to ensure the free circulation of digital data.
China’s efforts to “wall off” big data have weighed heavily on Abe. The country’s Cybersecurity Law, which was enacted in June 2017, requires companies to store domestic data, including critical data, on servers within China.
Some forecasts show China’s share of the world’s total volume of data rising to 20 percent by 2020. The struggle to bring the “data superpower” into line with international regulations on the management of big data — which impact everything from business to national security — will begin in earnest.
Japan-China relations have improved since reaching a postwar low in September 2012 after a row over Japan’s state ownership of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture. Nevertheless, Chinese government vessels still routinely enter Japanese territorial waters around the archipelago, and China’s displays of force in the East China Sea, South China Sea and elsewhere show no signs of abating.
“After the deterioration in bilateral relations, Japan’s view of China changed fundamentally. Even when ties are friendly, we won’t lower our guard,” a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official said.
Japan’s performance as G20 host nation will be judged based on how it balances friendly ties wtih containment.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made an official visit to China in October 2018, and it has been said that Japan-China relations are back on “the road to normalcy.” In reality, however, bilateral relations, which dramatically declined while the Democratic Party of Japan was in government, are only now recovering to baseline conditions.
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scheduled June visit of Japan was set up to coincide with the Group of 20 summit. However, China’s leader will need to make a trip solely for the purpose of visiting Japan before bilateral relations can truly be said to have “normalized.”
On the Japanese side, there are expectations that once relations have normalized, there will be a return to conditions in 2008, when both countries’s leaders interacted frequently and solid cooperation even on issues related to the East China Sea was apparent. However, China is seeking Japanese confirmation that Chinese government vessels can continue their brisk activity around the Senkaku Islands. There are gaps in the two countries’ perceptions on what constitutes normalization.
Both the existence of historical issues and the tensions concerning national security remain unchanged. China will not compromise on territorial or national security matters. It would appear that all Japan can do is push for the adoption of the Maritime and Aerial Communication Mechanism to prevent the emergence of provocative situations, and the continuation of the status quo.
By Shin Kawashima, University of Tokyo Professor