Japan Institute for National Fundamentals

Speaking out

Yasushi Tomiyama

【#552】Abe’s China Diplomacy Could Be Misunderstood

Yasushi Tomiyama / 2018.10.31 (Wed)

October 29, 2018

     China is now plagued with a trade war orchestrated by the U.S. Trump administration, while Chinese President Xi Jinping’s prestigious Belt and Road Initiative to expand China’s sphere of influence has hit a snag on aid recipient countries’ debt-trap concerns. Beijing has also come under international fire on its repression of the Uighur minority. In such situation, Shinzo Abe became the first Japanese prime minister in seven years to make an official visit to China and told President Xi that Japan would like to move the relationship with China “from competition to cooperation.” This diplomatic approach could be taken by others as coming to the rescue of China isolated in the international community.

Is Japan cooperating in BRI?
     The post-Cold War international order has been shaken for some time. In the United States that had led a global order based on freedom, democracy, market economy and the rule of law, President Donald Trump retains his “America First” policy, seeming to have no intent to be the leader of the free world. Meanwhile, Chinese President Xi has vowed to make China the world’s strongest country by the middle of the 21st century to replace the U. S. as leader of the world, while enhancing his Communist Party’s domestic control that conflicts with free world values.
     In a manner to overlap the BRI that forms a core of the expansion of China’s sphere of influence, Prime Minister Abe came up with a plan to promote cooperation between Japanese and Chinese companies in infrastructure investment in third countries. To avoid the BRI-caused problem that Chinese companies unilaterally benefit from economically doubtful investment while plaguing investment destination countries with excessive debt, Abe conditioned Japan-China infrastructure investment cooperation on openness, transparency, economic efficiency and financial soundness. However, it is doubtful if these conditions could prevent China from expanding its influence on recipient countries.
     The United States enacted a law in early October to create a U.S. International Development Finance Corporation to double a quota to $60 billion on official loans to U.S. companies investing in infrastructure in developing countries to roll back China’s expansion of influence under the BRI. I think Japan should give priority to U.S. companies rather than Chinese firms in cooperating infrastructure investment in third countries.

Risk accompanying risk hedging
     Prime Minister Abe told Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, “The international community including Japan was watching human rights conditions in China,” according to the Sankei Shimbun. The newspaper described Abe as “having the repression of the Uighur minority and other human rights issues in mind,” indicating that Abe fell short of directly mentioning Chinese authorities’ forceful detention of one million Uighurs. Given that the international community including the United States and the European Union has growingly criticized the Uighur repression in China, Abe’s statement to Premier Li looks tepid. It was excessively modest for Abe to have made the statement to No. 2 Chinese leader Premier Li instead of top-ranking President Xi.
     However, Prime Minister Abe is a rare politician in Japan who has a strategic thinking. He could be interpreted as using the improvement of relations with China and Russia as insurance while feeling less secure about the future of the Japan-U.S. alliance because of “unpredictable” Trump. But having said that such approach might be accompanied by a considerable risk. The Abe diplomacy could generate misunderstanding.

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