Abe could make China visit a pivotal one
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.