Abe could make China visit a piv­otal one

Global Times US Edition - - ASIANREVIE­W - By Jiao Kun The au­thor is a lec­turer at the School of His­tory, Wuhan Univer­sity. opin­[email protected]­al­times. com.cn

Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe em­barked on his three-day visit to China Thurs­day, sig­nal­ing eas­ing of long-time ten­sions be­tween the two neigh­bors.

It has been seven years since the last of­fi­cial visit to Bei­jing by a sit­ting Ja­panese prime min­is­ter. Con­sid­er­ing that Abe has at­tached so much im­por­tance to diplo­macy dur­ing his terms, and that China is so im­por­tant and close, it is very strange that he kept skip­ping China.

There were signs that he was ac­tu­ally will­ing to hold of­fi­cial meet­ings with top Chi­nese lead­ers, just as he did with Rus­sian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin. But gen­er­ally the strate­gic hos­til­ity showed by Ja­pan to­ward China thwarted ef­forts to im­prove re­la­tions.

Abe’s Bei­jing visit can be seen as one re­cip­ro­cat­ing Premier Li Ke­qiang’s trip to Ja­pan in May and comes as the two coun­tries mark the 40th an­niver­sary of sign­ing the Treaty of Peace and Friend­ship be­tween China and Ja­pan. How­ever, deeper mo­tives are more re­al­is­tic and strate­gic.

Abe has been ac­com­pa­nied by a large co­hort of Ja­panese busi­ness lead­ers. Ap­par­ently, the eco­nomic com­mu­nity in Ja­pan has been wish­ing and push­ing for this visit amid the on­go­ing trade war launched from the other side of the Pa­cific.

US Trade Rep­re­sen­ta­tive Robert Lighthizer re­cently no­ti­fied the congress that the US is to start ne­go­ti­a­tions for a bi­lat­eral trade agree­ment with Ja­pan in mid-Jan­uary. This will be an­other out­burst of the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion’s pro­tec­tion­ism, af­ter it has taken on a num­ber of Amer­ica’s trade part­ners.

His­tor­i­cally, Ja­pan has rarely ben- efited from trade ne­go­ti­a­tions with the US, and this lat­est round is doomed to be cat­a­strophic. Trump has been go­ing full throt­tle in the name of elim­i­nat­ing trade deficits, and Amer­ica’s deficit with Ja­pan is huge, just as it is with China.

There are signs that Trump will show no mercy to Ja­pan: A re­port by the Wall Street Jour­nal in early Septem­ber quoted him as say­ing his good re­la­tion­ship with Abe “will end as soon as I tell them how much they have to pay”.

This is not the first time that Trump has been harsh with Ja­pan. Right af­ter tak­ing of­fice, he pulled the US out of the TPP, forc­ing Ja­pan into rene­go­ti­at­ing with other part­ners in the Asia-Pa­cific re­gion. He also listed Ja­pan as one of the free-rid­ers in the se­cu­rity net­work of mil­i­tary al­liance with the US.

Right now, Ja­pan, one of the most im­por­tant Amer­i­can al­lies in East Asia, is some­how ex­cluded from all the frontand back-stage talks over the peace process on the Korean Penin­sula. The very likely up­com­ing dé­tente be­tween North Korea and the US will lead to less mil­i­tary pres­ence of Amer­ica on the penin­sula, which will cer­tainly rip­ple through the sur­round­ing re­gions.

In that case, Ja­pan will ei­ther be forced to pay much more to keep the se­cu­rity net­work pro­vided by the US or re­ceive weak­ened pro­tec­tion from the US.

Maybe Abe has been sens­ing these fun­da­men­tal changes in the eco­nomic and geopo­lit­i­cal en­vi­ron­ments of his coun­try. In the past few years he has been try­ing to get closer to Rus­sia, a ma­jor ad­ver­sary of the US. The trip to China, if suc­cess­ful, can pro­vide Ja­pan with more eco­nomic op­por­tu­ni­ties and strate­gic choices, en­hanc­ing its abil­ity to hedge fu­ture risks.

Dur­ing his visit, Abe’s talks with Chi­nese lead­ers may fo­cus on the econ­omy, cov­er­ing is­sues such as en­larg­ing the cur­rency swap scale, co­or­di­nat­ing over­seas in­fra­struc­ture projects by both coun­tries and so on. These steps are limited but can serve as the cat­a­lyst for full-scale eco­nomic co­op­er­a­tion in the fu­ture, in­clud­ing Ja­pan’s par­tic­i­pa­tion in China’s Belt and Road ini­tia­tive, as well as ad­vanc­ing the Re­gional Com­pre­hen­sive Eco­nomic Part­ner­ship ne­go­ti­a­tions to form a free trade zone in­clud­ing both coun­tries.

Of course, there is still un­cer­tainty. The US ad­min­is­tra­tion may weigh in at any point, de­mand­ing that Ja­pan ad­here to its tra­di­tional stance and poli­cies. Al­though Abe has met and talked with Putin many times, no ma­jor break­through has been achieved to solve the ter­ri­tory is­sue. This is largely be­cause while try­ing to build trust, Tokyo still shows loy­alty to the US-Ja­pan mil­i­tary al­liance, which deems Rus­sia more an op­po­nent than a part­ner. The same may ap­ply to the Sino-Ja­panese re­la­tion­ship in the near fu­ture. Now is the key time for Abe and other Ja­panese lead­ers to con­sider an­other step from demon­strat­ing limited kind­ness and weigh the pos­si­bil­ity of strate­gi­cally piv­ot­ing.

Il­lus­tra­tion: Liu Rui/GT

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