Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#513】No Rush to Improve Relations with China

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2018.05.16 (Wed)

May 14, 2018

     Prime Minister Shinzo Abe accompanied Chinese Premier Li Keqiang on his trip to Hokkaido after a Japan-China-South Korea summit in Tokyo last week and sent him off at a local airport from which Li returned home, indicating his unusual hospitality for the Chinese guest.
     Given that Chinese President Xi Jinping with a sulky face shook hands with Prime Minister Abe at an international conference in Beijing four years ago in a manner to symbolize then soured Japan-China relations, the recent improvement in bilateral relations is remarkable. Since Japan’s diplomacy is based on the alliance with the United States, however, Japan should take care not to rush to improving relations with China at a time when the U.S. steps up confrontation with China.

Is Japan cooperating with “Belt and Road”?
     The most attention-attracting Japan-China agreement during Li’s Japan visit was on the establishment of the two countries’ joint public-private committee to consider their business cooperation in third countries in conjunction with China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative that plans to create a modern “Silk Road Economic Belt” and a “21st Century Maritime Silk Road.”
     The Japanese government has been cautious of cooperating with China in the BRI, claiming that Japan’s cooperation would be conditioned on transparency and impartiality of fund procurement for infrastructure development in the BRI zone. This is because China launched the BRI as a part of its hegemonic expansion. Some debtor countries have failed to repay Chinese loans and had no choice but to transfer their key infrastructure to China.
     If the establishment of the joint public-private committee is the first step toward Japan’s possible cooperation in the BRI, it may not consistent with Prime Minister Abe’s Indo-Pacific strategy to offer an alternative to a China-led regional order. Japan may also have to give careful explanations to regional countries including India, a Japan-friendly giant that has refused to cooperate with China in the BRI. When the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals held a joint conference with the Vivekananda International Foundation, an Indian think tank, in March, Indian researchers showed concern over the Abe government’s attitude on the BRI.

U.S. deepening confrontation with China
     While Japan and China are improving their relations, the U.S. and China are deepening their confrontation over Taiwan and the South China Sea in addition to their trade dispute where the two countries have offered no compromise.
     Particularly, U.S. President Donald Trump signed the epoch-making Taiwan Travel Act into law in March, paving the way for senior U.S. and Taiwanese officials to exchange visits. The Senate unanimously voted for the act, demonstrating a strong bipartisanship against China’s opposition to the act.
     In the South China Sea where China has been militarizing its artificial islands, the Trump administration has carried Freedom of Navigation Operation almost every two months. In response, China implemented its largest-ever-scale military drill in the sea in April to demonstrate its naval power.
     While President Trump’s remarks on China have been widely fluctuating, the administration as a whole has apparently adopted a firm line against China, as indicated by its hardline policies including escalating trade dispute with Beijing. Japan-China relations depend on U.S.-China relations. China’s recent approach to Japan reflects the deepening U.S.-China confrontation. Japan should remain calm while pursuing a China policy that meets Japan’s national interests.

Yasushi Tomiyama is Senior Fellow and Planning Committee Member at the Japan Institute for National Fundamentals.