Not long ago, China, Japan and the ROK finally got their foreign ministers together in Tokyo. The foreign ministers’ meeting naturally had an important mission, and the opportunity it created may, to a considerable extent, reshape the relations among the three countries.
The Tokyo event not only allowed the three foreign ministers to meet but also offered a convenient chance for Director-General Toshihiro Nikai of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party to meet face to face with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi.
It is well-known that Nikai has been an LDP leader, a big-time expert in the nation’s business including political elections and parliamentary proceedings. He helped Junichiro Koizumi win his “postal elections” and Shinzo Abe cross the “constitutional threshold” in the recent Senate elections. Owing to his long-standing service as a cabinet minister, he is well-versed in the complex issues of regional cooperation in East Asia. As a strong advocate for Japan’s dominance in the East Asian community and regional integration, he openly called Japan to move itself from backstage to the front and stop leaving “ASEAN in the driver’s seat”. In domestic politics, Nikai made no attempt to hide his pro-China stance. It was he that worked with the then Chinese ambassador in Japan, Wang Yi, to re-establish the Japan-China league of friendly parliamentarians, and his general performance on China-related issues has been positive and friendly. In particular, when serving as Japan’s chief representative to promote Shinkansen in China, he told then Chinese Minister of Development and Reform Zeng Peiyan that the Japanese bullet train’s technology was nothing but a little bright spot in Japan’s overall learning from China and that he would be more than happy to let China have a high-speed rail line first, complete with technology backup. It was such a supportive attitude that laid the groundwork for amicable China-Japan cooperation in the high-speed rail area. Not long ago, in the face of a joint official statement and media hype in Japan concerning a surge of Chinese fishing boats in Diaoyudao area, Nikai, in his new capacity as LDP director-general, met with Chinese Ambassador Cheng Yonghua and the views he expressed were flexible, unlike those by Japan’s Foreign Ministry. This has provided a valuable atmosphere for more relaxed bilateral relations.
Nikai’s recent replacement of Tanigaki Junchi as LDP director-general reflects Mr. Abe’s respect for his policy and prestige. In particular, his thoughts on East Asia cooperation and integration, his unique approach to China and his personal connections present some hopes for a stranded Mr. Abe confronting a sluggish global and domestic economy.
Mr. Abe is eager to meet Chinese leaders. On the one hand, he has basically succeeded in his “overlooking the globe” diplomacy and a series of domestic elections, and he needs to succeed also in his dealings with China. On the other hand, Mr. Abe is at the end of his “Abenomics” rope, with flattening investment, stagnant consumption, negative export growth and the yen’s devaluation policy going nowhere. The US economy, now suffering a growth slowdown and facing the uncertain prospect of an interest-rate boost, has made increasing Japan exports to the US highly difficult. On top of that, the two countries seem to have been locked in heated economic bickering. Their finance ministers have exchanged harsh words quite a few times since the beginning of the year while clashing over differences of currency-exchange rate policies. In Europe, the Brexit controversy threatens a fragmented EU market, making it risky for Japan to increase exports there. In Asia, with growth in most countries grinding to a halt, Japan’s exports within Asia– nearly 60% of its total regional trade – looks gloomy. Against such a backdrop, the China market stands out as the only way out for the sluggish Japanese economy.
Now, the problem seems quite clear. It is the Abe administration’s sustained confrontational approach to China across the whole range of issues of history, territory, maritime security, regional security perception, geopolitics and others, sending China-Japan relations in a deep freeze.
Though top leaders of the two countries have met three times already, Mr. Abe shows little enthusiasm. He seems to follow an issue-specific approach, always asking the other side to accept his agenda while leaving the important issues of economic and security cooperation dangling in uncertainty. With the G20 Hangzhou Summit just around the corner, Mr. Abe once again expresses hopes for meetings with Chinese leaders. Does he genuinely want to ease bilateral relations or does he just want to play his favorable “issue-specific” tricks again? This is something Mr. Abe must think through carefully.
Why? Things are not so simple this time. In addition to a large number of geopolitical imperatives, Japan’s own economic future is at stake given serious widespread uncertainty about growth. Mr. Abe should take a sober look at the world as well as Japan’s own neighborhood, make a sound judgment of the situation and act in a down-to-earth manner to seriously engage China for economic and security cooperation. Only in such way can Japan’s relations with China play a decisive role of contributing to peace, stability and development of the region.
What is more, the coming US elections threaten to derail Mr. Abe’s most strategic asset, TPP. Japan’s efforts alone are not sufficient to save the project. If the US side cannot get it passed by Congress, then TPP will not fly, for it would fail to meet the required 70% of GDP of all consenting parties. This means that the other TPP members have just worked in vain. The Abe administration has wasted an opportunity of integrating East Asia and dominating the East Asia community by going all out for TPP. Now, Japan’s global strategy faces a choice: Will it come back to the path of China-Japan-ROK cooperation and rebuild the core for the East Asia community?
In this sense, not only must Mr. Abe take his talks with Chinese leaders seriously, he must also treat the China-Japan-ROK leaders’ meeting seriously, by solidly contributing to Asia-based mechanisms of regional cooperation and creating more opportunities for economic development in East Asia and Japan itself.