Japan in Their Own Words (JITOW)/日本からの意見

Four major factors that impact Japan-China relations
TAKAHARA Akio / Dean, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo

December 25, 2018
While the United States and China have fallen into a phase of confrontation,
Japan-China relations are warming through Prime Minister Abe’s official visit in October 2018, in which he met the top three leaders of China, Xi Jinping, Li Keqiang, and Li Zhanshu. Over 400 business people accompanied the prime minister and signed 52 agreements with their Chinese counterparts on cooperating in third countries.

There are four major factors that impact Japan-China relations: 1) domestic politics, 2) economics, 3) the international environment and security, and 4) people’s emotions, perceptions, and identity.

First, an important condition for China to introduce a friendly policy towards Japan was to have a strong leader with a solid power base. Xi’s consolidation of power met that condition. Abe also has a strong power base that is rare in Japanese politics. The Japanese public generally would like to have a leader who can firmly resist the challenges to their security, on the one hand, but can stabilize and develop Japan’s relations with its important neighbor, on the other. This time, according to a public opinion poll conducted by Nikkei during and immediately after Abe’s visit to China, 71% of the Japanese appreciated it, while only 20% did not.

Second, China’s deepening economic woes push its leadership towards better relations with Japan. Macroeconomic policies for deleveraging and structural reform in the first half of the year have hit the national economy hard, as the trade frictions with the United States and economic sanctions deal a serious blow both materially and psychologically. Stock prices and the value of the RMB have declined substantially, and the authorities are desperate to prevent capital flight. In this context, Japanese investments are precious, especially from the viewpoint of localities such as Shanghai, Hubei, Sichuan, and Guangzhou city. Japanese firms, especially automobile manufacturers, are responding to signs of further deregulation and increasing their investments in China.

Third, the international environment, particularly the US factor, has played an important role. For Xi the swing in Chinese diplomacy from “America-first” to “Eurasia-first”, exemplified in the Belt and Road initiative, was one factor in holding the first summit meeting with Abe in November 2014. Combined with the economic downturn, this time the dramatic deterioration in US relations constituted a decisive factor for China in bringing relations with Japan back on track. Abe sent Nikai Toshihiro, No. 2 leading figure of the Liberal Democratic Party and a well-known pro-China politician, to the Belt and Road Forum on International Cooperation in Beijing in May 2017. In the following month, Abe attended the Nikkei International Conference on the Future of Asia and personally mentioned the possibility of cooperating with the BRI on condition that the projects are based on openness, transparency, economic viability, and the fiscal soundness of the partner state.

Fourth, Chinese perceptions of Japan are changing. According to the annual public opinion poll conducted by the Genron NPO and the China International Publishing Group, the percentage of Chinese who had a good image of Japan increased gradually from 5.2 in 2013 (the first survey after the clash over the Senkaku Islands in 2012) , shooting up to 31.5 in 2017 and 42.2 in 2018. The percentage of those who had a bad image of Japan was 92.8 in 2013, which came down to 56.1 in 2018. The number of Chinese tourists visiting Japan increased from 1.3 million in 2013 to 7.4 million in 2017, recording an almost six-fold rise. It is widely believed that the positive image of Japanese society that the visitors transmit to the Chinese public through social networks is having a substantive impact.

On the Japanese side, the percentage of Japanese with a good image of China has increased from 9.6 in 2013 to only 13.1 in 2018. The percentage of those with a bad image has fallen only a few points from 93.0 in 2014 to 86.3 in 2018. The survey sites three major reasons for the Japanese negative image of China: 1) China often intrudes into the territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands; 2) China’s actions are against international rules; and 3) China criticizes Japan over history issues, etc. The development of relations has its limits if there is no change in such behavior on the part of China.

The key question is in the realm of security.

2018 happens to be the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Peace and Friendship Treaty between Japan and China. Both sides promised then that any conflict has to be solved by peaceful means and not by use of force or threat of the use of force, and that neither side would pursue hegemony. The intention of the Chinese was to include anti-hegemonism in the treaty to form a united front against the Soviet Union. Hegemony means to manipulate or control other countries with strength. In other words, you are hegemonic if you impose your will on others by strength. From the Japanese point of view, what China has been doing in the East and South China seas exemplifies none other than the pursuit of hegemony in the region.

Implementing the promise of not pursuing hegemony requires self-restraint. This was easier in the past, especially during the Cold War when the two countries had a common strategic goal to counter the threat of the Soviet Union. China’s GDP is now more than 2.5 times that of Japan, and the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that China’s military budget in 2016 was already close to five times larger than Japan’s. If China fails to show self-restraint, it will have disastrous consequences for Japan-China relations.

At the time of Abe’s visit, Japan and China made progress regarding the annual meeting between defense authorities on a maritime and air communication mechanism, the signing of the Japan-China Search and Rescue Agreement, mutual visits by defense ministers, and exchanges and dialogue between the defense authorities, including mutual visits by naval vessels. On the 2008 agreement on the development of resources in the East China Sea, it was agreed that communication would be strengthened with a view to resuming soon the negotiations for its implementation.

These are positive steps in the right direction, and the agreement to designate 2019 as the Year for Promoting Youth Exchange between Japan and China is good. However, these are not enough to clear the distrust between the two sides. China keeps on sending coast guard vessels to the seas around the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands, although the frequency of their entry into territorial waters has come down to once a month. As a next step in confidence building, Japan and China should implement successful joint ventures in third countries and demonstrate to their peoples and the world that the initiatives of the Free and Open Indo-Pacific and the BRI can coexist. Although each of the two initiatives has multiple facets, economic cooperation is a major aspect of both. Xi Jinping should mention the Free and Open Indo-Pacific when he visits Japan next year, reciprocating what Abe has done with the BRI. If that happens, Japan-China relations finally could be entering a new era.

Akio Takahara is Dean, Graduate School of Public Policy, The University of Tokyo. This is a shortened version of the article that appeared in The ASAN Forum, November-December 2018 Vol.6, No.6.
The English-Speaking Union of Japan

高原 明生 / 東京大学公共政策大学院教授

2018年 12月 25日












筆者は東京大学公共政策大学院教授。本稿はThe ASAN Forum, November-December 2018 Vol.6, No.6に掲載された英文記事の要約である。
一般社団法人 日本英語交流連盟

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