How China Plans to Leverage Its Relationship with Japan

Nurses wave Chinese national flags during a performance to celebrate the upcoming 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in Huaibei, Anhui province, China

There are domestic and geopolitics behind the détente.

Sino-Japanese relations have enjoy a relative lull in their complicated relationship over the past six months. In September 2017, Prime Minister Abe paid a surprise visit to the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo marking China’s upcoming National Day as well as the forty-fifth anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations at the Chinese Embassy. We have seen Abe express open interest in President Xi’s signature initiative, the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). Furthermore, Abe has voiced numerous positive statements conveying Japan’s interests in building a future-oriented relationship with Beijing. The de-escalation in the relationship’s downward spiral was also signaled by a low-key commemoration ceremony for the Nanjing Massacre in December 2017 in which President Xi did not speak.

While the warming of relations should be applauded and supported by the region and the world at large, this push towards a Sino-Japanese détente should be understood through the lens of domestic politics, reform and increasingly turbulent geopolitics within the region and globally. At the same time, we should have a sober appraisal about the fundamental challenges in the bilateral relationship but also how an intensifying Sino-U.S. rivalry will make it difficult for Beijing and Tokyo to transform the dynamics of their relation.

Prioritization of Risks for Beijing: North Korea and the United States

The Trump presidency and its efforts to denuclearize North Korea have been identified as Beijing’s two biggest risk factors for continued socioeconomic development to achieve President Xi’s China Dream, the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation and people. The North Korean issue has the potential to bring conflict to the region disrupting trade and regional stability, key precursors for China to maintain is socio-economic development. On the other hand, the Trump administration—if not treated with prudence and careful diplomacy—has the potential to push Sino-U.S. relations into a downward negative spiral that could manifest itself as Thucydides trap. As a result, leaders in Zhongnanhai have decided that they must improve relations with both Japan and South Korea, so they can concentrate their diplomatic efforts on Sino-U.S. relations and North Korea.

Leaders in Beijing seem to have recognized that their informal embargo against South Korea in 2017 to push back against the THAAD installment resulted in increased anti-Chinese sentiment and deepening relations with the United States. They also recognize that the anti-Japanese policy from 2012–2017 has not brought them the diplomatic results they wished.

Rather than maneuvering Tokyo into Beijing’s sphere of influence, regular incursions into the East China Sea (ECS) and anti-Japanese protests have concerns in Japan over China’s long term objectives for the region and caused a shift in Japanese trade and investment in Mainland China. Importantly, it has energized and consolidated Japan’s commitment to strengthening its economy, political influence and security capabilities.

Beijing understands that Abe is not going away anytime soon because of Abe’s political stability, successful economic and diplomatic policies and longevity in office (potentially to 2021). With that, they feel that they must form a more productive relationship.

Tokyo’s Cautious Engagement: History and Economy as Barrier and Bridge