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The geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia is changing. China has been rapidly modernizing its military and assertively pressing its expansive territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas. The United States’ commitment to the region has come into question. And North Korea has been expanding its nuclear and missile programs, despite international pressure.
All of these developments have led China and Japan to cautiously rethink their ties. Although trust between the two states remains elusive, in recent months, their governments have taken some incremental steps to stabilize their troubled relations. It seems that Beijing and Tokyo have calculated that their long-running feud is costing them too much and adding unnecessary uncertainty to their region’s security.
Perhaps the clearest signs of this change have been Tokyo’s attempts to resume high-level summitry with Beijing. Such meetings between Chinese and Japanese leaders have been scarce in recent years due to historical differences and geopolitical competition between the two countries. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not meet until 2014, some two years after both leaders took office, as their governments were squabbling over the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea.
But this May, on the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a key Abe aide, passed on a letter to China’s leadership indicating Japan’s interest in hosting reciprocal summits in both countries before 2018. The next month, Abe called for a trilateral summit with the leaders of China and South Korea. And on July 8, Abe and Xi met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg.
That meeting didn’t produce any breakthroughs, but it was the first encounter between the two leaders in nearly a year, and it should set the stage for more substantive visits in the coming months. Forty-five years after China and Japan established diplomatic relations, both countries are investing more into regularizing their ties.
High-level diplomacy is not the only area in which the two countries have sought a gradual thaw. In June, China and Japan resumed talks on maritime issues, which were last held in December, agreeing in principle to introduce crisis-management mechanisms to prevent accidents at sea from spiraling into conflict. That is most important in the waters surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea. One Chinese official told the Global Times that Beijing was “placing great importance on discussing setting up [a] hotline” between the two countries’ naval and air forces. Whether China will follow through remains to be seen: some in Beijing worry that the Chinese public will see the implementation of a final agreement as a concession to Japan.
There have been some other signs of a tepid rapprochement. In June, Abe cautiously endorsed China’s Belt and Road initiative–one of Xi’s signature foreign policy projects, which aims to back infrastructure projects across Eurasia—overcoming Tokyo’s former coolness toward the initiative. Japanese officials have long been concerned by the lack of details about the regulations that will govern the initiative’s practices; they are especially concerned about how the Chinese loans backing much of the construction are structured. They have also been worried by the Belt and Road’s geopolitical implications, concerned that the initiative’s larger goal is to bolster Beijing’s regional influence to Japan’s detriment. In the Indian Ocean region, China has poured money into such countries as Sri Lanka and Bangladesh, expecting political support in return. Beijing has also backed the construction of new ports in countries such as Pakistan—moves that concern Japan and other Asian states, which fear that Beijing seeks to expand China’s maritime access.
It is unlikely that Japan’s concerns about the Belt and Road have subsided. But Abe had reason to overcome them. Abe’s support could help improve his personal relationship with Xi, who has made the initiative a priority for his government. What’s more, Japan’s interest and potential involvement could eventually help shape the course of the initiative. Indeed, Japanese officials must recognize that opposing the Belt and Road would not help Tokyo influence China’s approach to the regulatory issues that most concern it. In this respect, Japan seems to have learned a lesson from its flawed reaction to China’s launch of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank last year: as Tokyo opposed that project on similar grounds, nearly every other country in the region and most of the developed world endorsed it (the United States did not). Abe has recently shown some interest in joining the AIIB, so long as the Bank addresses Tokyo’s concerns about governance and project regulations. The Asian Development Bank, an institution dominated by Japan and the United States, has already begun to work on some joint projects with the AIIB.
Abe appears to have calculated that he can approach China pragmatically, improving Japan’s economic and political ties with the country while firmly opposing Beijing’s assertive behavior in the East China and South China Seas. But there is one other factor behind Abe’s change of heart: the election of Donald Trump as U.S. president. The U.S.-Japanese alliance has remained on firm ground since Trump’s inauguration, and Abe has developed a strong personal rapport with Trump. Yet Trump’s capriciousness toward U.S. allies and his proclivity for economic protectionism have unnerved many of Washington’s partners. Perhaps the most striking example of this was Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership–a deal in which Japan invested deeply–without a backup plan. Like many of the other countries involved in that pact, Japan was left to pick up the pieces, and it is now looking for alternative trade groups that do not include the United States, such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, in which China and India are involved. Japan is not hedging against its alliance with the United States by turning to China; rather, it is playing on the edges of a troubled relationship and finding opportunities to improve ties. In Beijing, meanwhile, the Trump presidency has introduced extra anxiety over the future of U.S.-China relations and may have created doubts about the strategic costs of China’s assertive posture toward Japan in recent years.
Despite the changes, China and Japan are still far from a détente. Both countries suffer from a longstanding lack of trust over a variety of issues, from maritime security to the modernization of their militaries. The intensifying competition between China and the United States will continue to be a long-term source of division between Tokyo and Beijing, considering Japan’s alliance with Washington. And the situation in the East China Sea has been deteriorating, as Chinese ships have made ever more incursions into the waters and skies surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.
Finally, although Abe may hope to hold a summit with Xi before the end of the year, doing so would be politically risky for the Chinese leader. Xi seeks to avoid controversies and project strength in the run-up to the Communist Party’s 19th national congress this fall, when he will seek to cement his power by installing allies in China’s top decisionmaking bodies. Improving ties with Japan makes diplomatic sense, but because of the longstanding disagreements between Beijing and Tokyo over historical issues and the East China Sea, it would also be fraught.