Trump Brews Si­noJa­panese Ice

Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping sees Ja­pan as a way to mit­i­gate trade war with the US as Ja­pan seeks to fur­ther en­hance eco­nomic ties with the land of dragons


When Shinzo Abe took of­fice six years ago, it would’ve been un­think­able for China’s lead­ers to roll out the red car­pet for him. The Ja­panese prime min­is­ter can thank US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump for the turn­around.

Abe heads to Bei­jing this week to cel­e­brate the 40th an­niver­sary of a peace­and-friend­ship treaty be­tween the Asian pow­er­houses, which have a long his­tory of bad blood due in part to Ja­pan’s colo­nial in­va­sions of China and atroc­i­ties com­mit­ted dur­ing World War II. He’ll meet Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping on Fri­day as part of the first bi­lat­eral visit by a Ja­panese leader in seven years.

A slow warm­ing of ties be­tween the neigh­bors has ac­cel­er­ated af­ter both found them­selves un­der at­tack from Trump on trade. Al­though Ja­pan’s al­liance with the US keeps the na­tion in lock­step with Wash­ing­ton on most geopo­lit­i­cal is­sues, Abe has moved to shore up eco­nomic ties with China — its biggest trad­ing part­ner. Xi, in turn, sees Ja­pan as a way to mit­i­gate the risk of a trade war with the US.

“Eco­nomic-and-trade co­op­er­a­tion is the bal­last and pro­pel­ler of the China-Ja­pan re­la­tion­ship, lay­ing the key­stone for the mu­tual po­lit­i­cal trust,” Chi­nese Min­istry of Com­merce spokesman Gao Feng said last week.

Abe is pre­par­ing to bring a 500-strong busi­ness del­e­ga­tion with him to dis­cuss co­op­er­a­tion in third coun­tries, as pledged dur­ing Chi­nese Pre­mier Li Ke­qiang’s visit to Ja­pan in May. The two sides will look to re­vive a cur­rency swap frame­work dor­mant since 2013 and pos­si­bly progress to­ward an agree­ment on loans of gi­ant pan­das, ac­cord­ing to me­dia re­ports.

They are also both push­ing for a quick con­clu­sion to Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Agree­ment, a trade deal in­volv­ing 16 coun­tries in the Asia-Pa­cific. The South China Morn­ing Post re­ported ear­lier this month that Bei­jing was also look­ing into join­ing the suc­ces­sor to the Trans-Pa­cific Part­ner­ship, which Ja­pan pushed to com­plete af­ter Trump pulled out.

“We haven’t solved our prob­lems with Ja­pan,” said Gui Yong­tao, an as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor at Pek­ing Uni­ver­sity’s School of In­ter­na­tional Stud­ies, who spe­cial­izes in

Chi­nese-Ja­panese re­la­tions. “But th­ese are much less pri­or­i­tized com­pared to the US risk. We still don’t know what will hap­pen with US pol­icy to­wards China.”

Still, for all the good­will, for­mi­da­ble his­tor­i­cal bar­ri­ers re­main to im­proved ties — none big­ger now than ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes.

Ten­sions flared in 2012 — the year Abe took power — when Ja­pan bought part of an un­in­hab­ited chain of East China Sea islets dis­puted with Bei­jing, spark­ing some­times vi­o­lent protests in China and turn­ing re­la­tions ar­guably their most hos­tile since World War II. The is­lands are known as the Senkaku in Ja­pan and the Diaoyu in China.

Ships from both coun­tries still con­tinue to chase one an­other around the area, with Ja­pan mak­ing a for­mal protest over a Chi­nese in­cur­sion into what Ja­pan con­sid­ers its ter­ri­to­rial wa­ters just last week, ac­cord­ing to broad­caster NHK. For its part, Ja­pan held mil­i­tary drills in­volv­ing a sub­ma­rine last month in the South China Sea, a body of wa­ter where China has ex­ten­sive ter­ri­to­rial claims.

De­fense chiefs from China and Ja­pan last week agreed on more mil­i­tary ex­changes and a hot­line to avoid un­in­tended clashes dur­ing their first meet­ing in three years. But Ja­panese De­fense Min­is­ter Takeshi Iwaya also crit­i­cized China over its ac­tiv­i­ties in the South China Sea, and an­other Ja­panese govern­ment of­fi­cial said there would be no real im­prove­ment with China un­less ten­sions fur­ther north in the East China Sea sta­bi­lize.

Ter­ri­to­rial is­sues are a ma­jor rea­son why the Ja­panese pub­lic has one of the world’s most neg­a­tive views of China, ac­cord­ing to Pew Re­search Cen­ter. Even as China’s im­pres­sion of Ja­pan has re­cov­ered from the 2012 cri­sis, thanks partly to tourism, the Ja­panese have re­mained wary.

Yuichiro Ta­maki, the leader of a main op­po­si­tion party, said even some younger law­mak­ers in Abe’s rul­ing Lib­eral Demo­cratic Party are cau­tious about the re­la­tion­ship. “There are few in the younger gen­er­a­tion who want to be friendly with China,” Ta­maki said in an in­ter­view, adding that his own party fa­vored link­ing up with Bei­jing when ap­pro­pri­ate.


And while Ja­pan has been crit­i­cal of Trump’s pol­icy of slap­ping tar­iffs on China, Abe’s govern­ment shares some US con­cerns on trade and in­vest­ment. Ja­panese Trade Min­is­ter Hiroshige Seko, who will join the trip, is work­ing with the US and Europe on pro­pos­als to ad­dress prob­lems caused by state en­ter­prises and forced tech­nol­ogy trans­fers.

Even so, Abe’s visit ce­ments a gen­eral warm­ing of ties — and opens the door for Xi to visit Ja­pan as soon as next year.

“No­body thinks ties with China have com­pletely re­cov­ered, and they shouldn’t think that,” said Ku­ni­hiko Miyake, a for­mer Ja­panese diplo­mat and now vis­it­ing pro­fes­sor at Rit­sumeikan Uni­ver­sity. “We’re now in an era where hav­ing both sides make an ef­fort to keep fric­tion to a min­i­mum is what we have to call good ties.”

Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping

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