Can China and Japan set aside rivalry to work as a team?

Over the course of history, China has bestowed some wonderful gifts upon Japan. Fifteen hundred years ago, it shared its language with its neighbour, bestowing literacy and a new pattern of thought. To this day, Japanese schoolchildren memorise up to a thousand kanji ideograms, which they respectfully refer to as the ‘Chinese’ characters. Unfortunately, they cannot use the words on the page as a means of conversation with living Chinese people, as their languages have long since diverged. Their ideologies and cultures have also taken different paths, yet China and Japan would both benefit from closer communication, as would the rest of Asia.

Just ask the people of Thailand. They are hoping that China and Japan will team up to assist the Thai government in establishing a high speed rail link, serving international airports and stimulating development along the Eastern Economic Corridor.

It is an expensive and complex scheme that will require three Asian nations, each with different business cultures and political systems, to work together for many years. Encouragingly, all of them appear to be committed to making it a successful venture.

When Prime Minister Shinzo Abe travelled to Beijing for a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping at the end of October, he was accompanied by representatives of Japanese companies which would appreciate a share of the vast resources China offers its partners, especially those countries which lie in the path of its ambitious Belt and Road initiative.

Those trade routes take a western path, from China to Europe, while Japan lies to China’s South East. Logistically, Japan could support Belt and Road if it wished to do so, although so far its involvement is limited, especially at a governmental level. Mr Abe rightly questions whether the plan is genuinely designed to deliver international benefits, or if it is primarily aimed at serving China’s national interest.

These are not concerns which were displayed in public in Beijing. Mr Abe and Mr Xi were all smiles when they met in the Great Hall of the People, and naturally they emphasised their common ground. There are 30,000 Japanese businesses operating in China, investing more than three billion dollars each year. Most Japanese executives attempt to overlook the political and ideological differences between China and Japan, which are profound. Socialism with Chinese characteristics is very distinct from Japan’s form of capitalism, which is heavily influenced by the United States.

Yet America’s role in Asia is changing and it is likely that China will use the disruption caused by Donald Trump to further assert its own position. That would leave Japan – and India – to maintain the balance of power in the region; a heavy responsibility for which they are not yet prepared.
Although China has overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy, it remains clumsy in its diplomacy, with few friends or allies. In the past three years, it has risked further censure through an intolerance of democracy and international law. That should make Mr Abe particularly wary of publicly supporting Sino-centric schemes – especially if the Chinese seek to present him as a subordinate.

Mr Abe has said that the key goals of his premiership are to revive Japan’s economy, to nurture its national pride and to restore its global reputation. China has a different dream, in which it plays a globally central role, with its ruling Communist party controlling its destiny. Given these two contrasting visions, ideological clashes are inevitable.
Yet the Beijing summit has served as a reminder that China and Japan can also respect each other as equals with common interests. They both have much to offer the rest of the world; Asia will celebrate when they collaborate, not compete.

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