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
On the Japanese side, Abe has consistently been open about the economic opportunities that a warm Sino-Japanese relationship would have and as a result he has made significant efforts to bridge the relationship. On matters of history for example, the Cabinet Statement on August 14, 2015, highlighted Japan’s role in bringing great harm and indignity to countries in the region. The Kitaoka Commission “On the History of the 20th Century and on Japan’s Role and the World Order in the 21st Century” also recognized this. Abe has also recognized the positive opportunities of President Xi’s signature foreign policy, the BRI and has expressed interest in joining it.
Functional Not Transformative Turn in Relations
Based on the above facts, rather than Sino-Japanese relations improving because a fundamental transformation in their relationship as we saw in the Franco-German relationship, the relationship is returning to being functional and cooperative in areas that are not contentious. In this sense, a return to the Seikei Bunri (政経分離）style of relations in which politics and economics are separated is superficially taking place. Progress on issues such as history, the Senkakus/Daioyutai islands in the East China Sea (ECS), and different views about the sovereign claims in the South China Sea are being deprioritized for now.
In the mid- to long-term future Japan still sees the United States as the cornerstone of its security . In the mid- to long-term future, China views the United States as its strategic rival. These two visions are incompatible and, as a result, Sino-Japanese relations will remain functional and will be characterized as case-by-case cooperation.
Shelving ECS Disputes?
The ideal scenario is that both countries return to the Tanage (shelve) approach to dealing with the ECS Senkaku/Daioyutai issue in which leaders in both countries decided to let “wiser” future generations find a solution to the dispute of sovereignty over these contentious islands. This does not appear to be the trajectory of the issue over the past five years and going forward.