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Foreign Policy

China and Japan Hedge Against Trump

Nov 01 , 2018

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There was both irony and solace to be found in the sight of the Hinomaru flag flying over Tiananmen Square, inevitably framed by photographers to include Mao’s image lurking in the background. The optics of Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo being received in Beijing to meet President Xi Jinping this October were refreshing, but it is too soon to say if the photo op was a mere fig-leaf to hide unresolved territorial tensions at sea, or the first page of a new chapter of Sino-Japanese amity.

The political unpredictability of the current U.S. administration and the threat of an all-out trade war are sufficient stimulants alone to explain why both Beijing and Tokyo are inclined to tamp down the tensions and get talking. Given the divisive history and recent tensions between the two East Asian superpowers, it took nothing less than a violent rocking of the boat by Captain Trump to throw China and Japan into each other’s arms. Not a loving embrace, to be sure, but a hedge to prevent a tumble, an act of self-preservation. Or as Brooking’s Jonathan Pollack put it, China and Japan stand to benefit from the “unforced errors” of U.S. economic nationalism.

U.S. President Trump’s truculent “America First” isn’t the worst of it. After all, most countries resolutely pursue national self-interest even when they pretend otherwise; the problem is a dysfunctional White House in which the whims of the increasingly erratic Donald Trump seem to trump both national and international concerns. His administration has shown a malicious glee in ripping up long-held diplomatic, economic, and military arrangements and agreements. It’s not just that the president is pointedly undiplomatic, but willfully disruptive, with little or no concern for the unintended consequences of his behavior.

Thrusting China and Japan together to ease the brunt of an unnecessary trade war is one such unintended consequence. Economic prosperity will take a hit — it’s the kind of poorly-conceived trade war in which all sides lose — but the silver lining is that Beijing and Tokyo are talking again.

Trump’s belligerent diplomacy might be waged in the name of making America great again, but it may also be heralding the end of the post-war international order in which the U.S. sets the tone, rules, and standards for trade and diplomacy. Canada and Mexico have been targets of his outsized wrath, but he’s also gone after NATO, the continent of Africa, China, South Korea, and Japan, among others. Although Abe has made frequent, obsequious visits to the U.S. to visit Trump, first in Trump Tower and then at the White House and at Mar-a-Lago, Trump has not spared his suitor from the bruising effects of U.S. economic nationalism. Japan has been hit with tariffs, too.

Abe’s uncharacteristic bid to firm up Japan’s shaky relationship with China has to be understood in this context. He’s predisposed to a bleak Cold War mindset in keeping with long-standing LDP practice since his grandfather Kishi Nobusuke, accused war criminal, later eager U.S. collaborator, was in power. Trump’s unlikely but certifiable success in bringing North Korea into the diplomatic game has had the unintended effect of shaking Abe’s “we-them” worldview.

Abe’s overtures for a special U.S. relationship have been largely unrequited. If the U.S. doesn’t have his back anymore, what’s there to lose in softening his hardline stance on China? Abe’s dash to Beijing had a faint air of desperation about it, akin to flirting with someone you have no strong intentions of getting serious with to win back the attention of the one whose undivided attention you seek.

Still, some good may come of the rushed summit yet. Some 500 Japanese businessmen trailed Abe to Beijing, signing business deals worth $18 billion, according to China Daily. Both sides see infrastructure investment as one way to lessen the impact of disruptive Trump policy, though Japan has shown more interest in expanding car sales than investing in Xi’s vaunted “Belt and Road” scheme.

Xi Jinping characterized the turn in Sino-Japanese relations as marking out a “new era,” while Abe described it as the “carving out of a new relationship.” Comforting platitudes in both cases, but Abe’s rhetoric rings hollow. His militant view of territorial claims and history hasn’t changed, for within days he was cozying up to India’s Narendra Modi at a resort home near Mount Fuji as a hedge against China, and castigating South Korea for bringing up the unresolved historic issue of Imperial Army sex slaves. One gets the feeling he’d really rather be in Florida playing golf with Trump.

For China and Japan to patch things up is not a bad thing for the U.S. in the long-term. Indeed, should tensions increase, an inadvertent collision in the bitterly contested waters between Japan and China could lead to a military clash which could possibly snowball into a ruinous war, a war that could cripple the U.S. and wreck the world’s economy as collateral damage. So, the summit was a worthwhile step back from the brink and an upsurge in diplomacy is called for. China Daily summed it up by saying that China and Japan must find a way to “right the ship of their relations” whenever stormy waters threaten to sink them.

Leaders are supposed to lead, but in this case, they’re catching up with popular trends. Japanese trade with China is massive and unheralded grass roots ambassadors on both sides have done much to bridge the gap between the nations. China sends more tourists to Japan than anyone else, pouring tens of billions of dollars into Japan’s economy every year.

Another impetus for Beijing to show forbearance with Japan, albeit hidden and coming from an elite source, is China’s diplomatic tradition, since the demise of Mao, to foster a “cooperative and win-win international environment.” Or, as the South China Morning Post put it in a headline about a September 16, 2018 speech by Deng Pufang: “Deng Xiaoping’s son urges China to ‘know its place’ and not be ‘overbearing.’” It was precisely this kind of ageless wisdom that helped China get to where it is today, and it seems particularly apt in this day and age of “overbearing” politics. If both China and Japan can find their place, and not be unduly overbearing, they can weather any storm set off by the intemperate Trump.

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