Japan’s premier received a red-carpet welcome in China during October’s summit with President Xi, which marked a huge step forward in diplomatic relations. Stephen Nagy looks at how Donald Trump’s disruptive influence has affected the dynamic between the two East Asian rivals
The Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was treated with the greatest of respect as he walked through the Great Hall of the People in the company of Chinese President Xi Jinping in October. He was greeted as an illustrious Asian statesman during the first full-scale summit between China and Japan since 2011 and remarkably, the stage is now set for President Xi to make his first official visit to Tokyo next year, including a meeting with Japan’s Emperor.
Behind this friendlier dynamic between Beijing and Tokyo is the Trump administration’s approach to foreign policy, which has inadvertently provided the foundation for Japan and China to set aside historical grievances and return to their normal relationship, in which economic interests prevail over political and ideological differences.
The summit in Beijing provided Japan with an opportunity to showcase its commitment to diplomacy and to deepen its economic engagement with China. Mr Abe was accompanied by more than a thousand business people, eager to form partnerships with their Chinese counterparts.
This followed an effort on both sides to move on from the legacy of their bitter recent history. Last year, Mr Abe made a surprise visit to the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo to mark China’s National Day. President Xi has also refrained from openly criticising Japan for historical conflicts such as the Nanking Massacre. Furthermore, the Chinese media has taken a more restrained tone over the issue of a disputed territory, the Senkaku islands which lie between the two countries.
The environment has changed because of President Trump’s approach to foreign policy. Mr Trump’s decision not to bring America into the multilateral TPP trade agreement was a cause of great frustration in Japan, as he is seeking a bilateral agreement with Japan rather than inclusion in a multilateral system. There was also annoyance in Tokyo when the Trump administration imposed tariffs on Japanese steel.
Moreover, Mr Trump has challenged China, most obviously through the escalating trade war, and he has questioned the ‘One China policy’ which leads to the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan. Mr Trump has labelled China as a strategic competitor and he even used a visit to the UN Security Council to accuse China of trying to influence elections in the United States.
The Trump administration’s eschewing of the American-built liberal world order for a realpolitik, transactional approach to foreign policy has inadvertently encouraged Japan and China to move closer together.
Prime Minister Abe and President Xi both enjoy strong political power domestically and this enables them to each advance their national interests internationally. Inevitably, those interests sometimes conflict.
In the East China Sea, the issue of Japanese sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands is still challenged by China. And in the South China Sea, the militarisation of man-made islands is another source of contention. Japan does not help its case against China’s actions by building artificial islands in Okinotorishima.
Belt and road
When it comes to international expansion, Xi Jinping’s core idea is the Belt and Road initiative, which is designed to expand ancient trade routes from China through Central Asia to Europe. Japanese businesses are experts on trade and therefore have some incentive to support the BRI. However, Shinzo Abe does not share China’s vision for the region’s future integration.
China’s other ambition is to be the predominant military power in Asia and to reduce the influence of the United States. This threatens the alliances between America, Japan and South Korea. So far, Japan has sought to deepen its military alliance with the US, although Mr Trump does not always signal enthusiasm for the relationship.
The Sino-Japanese relationship is heavily influenced by the balance of power on the global stage. The US-China trade war reflects the new realities of great power politics, affected by President Trump’s realpolitik-based foreign policy. Japan must now decide how it sees its place in this new world order.