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Foreign Policy

Stopping the Strategic Drift with Japan

May 08, 2021
  • Zhang Yun

    Associate Professor at National Niigata University in Japan, Nonresident Senior Fellow at University of Hong Kong

The message on China from the recent U.S.-Japan summit has aroused widespread concerns over the future of China-Japan relations, which had improved markedly from 2017 to 2020.

In September 2017, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe attended a Chinese National Day reception hosted by the Chinese embassy in Tokyo. In May 2018, eight years after his predecessor’s visit to Japan, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang paid an official visit to the country. In October that year, Abe visited China.

President Xi Jinping attended the G20 summit in Osaka, Japan, in June 2019, the first time in nine years since a Chinese head of state had set foot on Japanese soil. Abe invited Xi to make a state visit and China accepted in principle. In early 2020, after the outbreak of COVID-19, China and Japan stood by each other in the common fight against the pandemic.

Since then, however, the momentum of improvement in China-Japan relations has waned, with reports of Japanese companies withdrawing their investments from China, postponement of the proposed state visit, Japan blaming China on the latter’s Coast Guard Law, China criticizing Japan for its discharge of Fukushima nuclear wastewater into the sea and the mention of Taiwan and other sensitive issues at the U.S.-Japan summit.

The China-Japan relationship has begun to slide into what has been described as “strategic drift.” How will the two countries stop and put things right once again? Of course, sticking to the four political documents is the key. On the basis of this, efforts must also be made to clarify and consolidate the common cognitive foundation in the following three aspects.

First of all, China and Japan need to agree on the strategic positioning of the relationship between them as important neighbors. Here is the biggest difference between the China-Japan relationship and the China-U.S. and U.S.-Japan relationships: No country can choose its neighbor and no neighbor is able to move away. Therefore, the two sides must learn to live in harmony with each other.

It is fair to say that the leaders on both sides are acutely aware of this. Xi made it clear in September 2020 in his first telephone conversation with Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, after the latter’s election, that China and Japan were important neighbors. While addressing the Diet, Suga also talked about the extreme importance of a stable relationship with China.

However, it often seems difficult to put leaders’ views coherently into practice on specific issues. For example, on the Fukushima wastewater discharge issue, it is questionable whether the two countries have had full, effective communications. In this respect, Japan seems not to have an adequate understanding of the fact that China and Japan are important neighbors. This is probably why China often talks about mutual respect with regard to relations with Japan.

Second, the two countries also need to bear in mind, strategically, that their relationship is between important major countries. There’s no doubt that Japan perceives China as a major country, but whether Japan is also seen as such has long been debatable in China. With the rise of China, some Chinese see Japan as a declining state, or a “middle power” like Canada or Australia. On the other hand, people still worry about the potential resurgence of militarism in Japan and its rise as a great power.

There is thus an inherent conflict in the Chinese perception of Japan. In fact, its economic and social strength will allow Japan to remain a major power for decades to come. The country has a population of 126 million, second only to the U.S. among advanced economies and equivalent to the combined population of Britain and France. Even if its population falls to 80 million by 2050, by some estimates, the size of Japan’s domestic market will largely sustain it.

Japan still leads the world in high-tech, social security, healthcare and other fields. There is no serious populism in Japan as in other major Western countries. In terms of soft power, various opinion polls around the world suggest that Japan enjoys fairly high popularity.

In the 1970s and ’80s, Japan made great leaps by importing, digesting and absorbing technologies and establishing high-level domestic industrial chains to meet domestic demand and export quality products. Japan is arguably the forerunner of the “dual circulation” model now being undertaken by China.

Third, China and Japan need to jointly develop a shared understanding of the strategic positioning of their relationship in the new era. In 2019, they agreed to jointly build a relationship for the new era. What should be “new” in this relationship?

First of all, the two countries should tap the endogenous driving forces for the growth of relations. Over the past four years, China-Japan relations were arguably little affected by the U.S. factor after the end of the Cold War. By contrast with the deteriorating China-U.S. relationship, China-Japan ties remained stable, which represented initial success in exploring a self-disciplined relationship.

Second, as neither China nor Japan poses a threat to the other, the two sides should support each other in major international activities to build up sound interaction and mutual trust. In 2019, Japan thanked China for the latter’s support of the Osaka Summit. In 2020, the two sides agreed to support each other in hosting the Olympic Games. Their ties in the new era need to be constantly enriched and exercised.

The China-Japan relationship is like a ship forging ahead against the wind. We must stop the strategic drift and steady the direction. The ship is also sailing against the current, which will push it backward if it does not move forward. We must always do more things to benefit the relationship and get things done. Only by so doing can we maintain a strong endogenous momentum and move further together in a steady manner.

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