Chinese State Councilor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi paid a visit to Japan in late November — the first senior Chinese official to do so since Yang Jiechi, a member of the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China, visited in February.
Wang’s visit marked the resumption of the high-level exchanges that had been interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. Apart from reaffirming the importance of China-Japan relations and discussing the usual topic of managing sensitive issues, the two sides notably pledged their full support to each other in hosting the 2021 Summer Olympics in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
The two events will be held less than a year apart. The resumption of personnel exchanges, even to a limited degree, will be conducive to the successful hosting of the Olympics, facilitate economic recovery and enhance warm mutual feelings between the two peoples.
During the visit, the two sides agreed to open a fast track on Nov. 30 for personnel exchanges, while putting strict pandemic control measures in place. With nine months to go until the Tokyo Olympics, the resumption and expansion of such exchanges over the next six months may encourage a large number of Chinese spectators to go to Tokyo. That will be followed by the Beijing Winter Games in another five months, and many Japanese spectators would want to attend.
Before the pandemic, there were more than 1,000 direct flights per week between the two countries. The restoration of only half the flights would be significant.
The fact that the Chinese economy recovered first from the pandemic has already brought tangible benefits to the Japanese economy. In the past, the most important economic value of China to Japan was its function as the world’s factory and production base. Now it increasingly functions as the leading overseas market for high-end Japanese products.
For example, for five consecutive years during the Single’s Day Shopping Festival, Japanese businesses have been the top sellers on Alibaba’s cross-border e-commerce site. Three of the top five imported brands were Japanese, led by Ya-Man, the Japanese beauty appliance maker.
At fourth and fifth place were Kao and Shiseido. Panasonic alone saw a 25 percent increase over the previous year in the sales of beauty appliances. According to a report in Nihon Keizai Simbun, major Japanese companies raised their performance forecasts in late October and early November, with 77 percent of them raising expectations for net profit, mainly citing the traction of a strong economic recovery in China.
Further, mutual support in hosting the summer and winter Games will generate benign spillover effects at the regional level, which will provide a new impetus for regional integration in East Asia. The UN’s World Tourism Organization estimated that even if international travel resumes in December, the number of international travelers will be 78 percent less than the previous year.
According to authoritative estimates, the severity of the pandemic in Europe and the United States means that any resumption of international travel by traditional Western tourists on a large scale will be unlikely before 2022 or even 2023. In other words, businesses that involve a lot of personnel exchanges will face difficulties and will be forced to rely on greater Asian integration in addition to their home markets.
Flights within East Asia with a flight time of two to five hours will resume by the middle of next year, sources say. Resumption of personnel exchanges between the world’s second- and third-largest economies will have a demonstrable positive effect, which is good news for the region.
As South Korea, Singapore and Thailand depend on China and Japan to a high degree, cooperation between the latter will lead to further regional integration. In Thailand, for example, the number of foreign tourists was 40 million last year and will fall below 7 million this year. Foreign visitors contribute two-thirds of the 3 trillion baht ($1 trillion) a year earned by the Thai travel and tourism industry. Therefore, it’s extremely important for Thailand to encourage East Asian guests to come back at an early date.
If China and Japan can showcase the resumption of tourist exchanges even amid pandemic control measures during the Olympic Games, it will send a very strong positive signal across East Asia similar to the domestic travel surges typically seen during the Chinese National Day holiday. The signing of the RCEP by East Asian countries this month, the first clear indication by Chinese leaders to consider joining the CPTPP and the successful hosting of the Tokyo and Beijing Olympic Games will give a major momentum to the integration of East Asia.
Additionally, success with the Olympics in the context of COVID-19 will help fight the pandemic by restoring the economy and supporting multilateralism and global governance. With the U.S. presidential election behind us, the winner, Joe Biden, is widely expected to return to multilateralism. However, given the current state of outbreaks in the U.S., the new administration will have to prioritize domestic affairs for quite some time, in which case other major economies will have to play a positive leading role.
The 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympic Games will be held in Paris and Los Angeles respectively. The experience of Tokyo and Beijing will serve as a bellwether for the other two cities. To support each other, China and Japan will certainly strengthen cooperation and communication at all levels. At the same time, they should also engage other countries and cooperate with international institutions such as the World Health Organization. Such cooperation is itself an important test of multilateral diplomacy and of the breadth, depth and resilience of China-Japan relations.
Therefore, seizing the opportunities presented by the upcoming summer and winter Games will be invaluable in furthering bilateral relations, promoting regional integration in Asia and deepening global multilateral governance.