Japan's prime minister, a Trump buddy, now tries to cozy up to China's president
China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, in Beijing Nov. 10, 2014. (Kim Kyung Hoon/Reuters) October 22 at 10:17 AM
BEIJING â" Chinese economic reformer Deng Xiaoping traveled to Tokyo exactly 40 years ago this week to mark the signing of the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty, as the two countries attempted to put the memories of wars behind them.
âIn the present turbulent situation, China needs friendship with Japan and vice versa,â Deng told the Japanese prime minister at the time, between visits to high-tech factories and marveling at Japanâs bullet trains.
Fast forward four decades, and China has overtaken Japan as the worldâs second largest economy and is now producing high-speed trains of its own. But the same thoughts may well be running through President Xi Jinpingâs mind today.
Now, in the middle of an increasingly bitter trade war with the United States, Xi will on Wednesday welcome Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for their first bilateral meeting in more than seven years.
âFor the first time for a very long time, Chinese leaders are looking for a positive relationship with Japan,â said Yun Sun, a China expert at the Stimson Center in Washington, D.C. âWith Trump in power, both Japan and China are feeling the hea t coming. It changes their calculations,â she said.
Xi will host Abe at a reception, attended by about 500 Japanese business leaders, in the Beijingâs opulent Great Hall of the People on Wednesday night, for a celebration marking the 40th anniversary of the treaty.
Then they will have a day of meetings Thursday during which they will pledge to work together on economic cooperation projects in third countries such as Thailand. They expected to reach agreements on more than 30 such infrastructure projects.
Itâs a far cry from 2014, when friction over a group of disputed islands in the East China Sea raised fears the two countries would become involved in a military conflict. Japanese companies pulled out of China in droves, and the two leaders had a famously awkward encounter at an APEC meeting.
But over the past year, the two countries have started to repair their relationship, at least superficially.
Chinaâs foreign minister and premier have both visited Japan this year, and the number of Chinese tourists following suit is expected to reach a record 8 million this year. Japan was the top destination for Chinese travelers during this monthâs Golden Week holiday, according to travel website C-Trip.
Then thereâs the Trump factor.
China is eagerly trying to improve economic relations with a raft of rich countries to try to reduce its exposure to the United States, where President Trump has slapped tariffs on $250 billion of Chinese imports and is threatening more.
Chinese Premier Li Keqiang just came back from a trip touring Chinese market access to European companies, while Beijing is redoubling its efforts to forge a trade deal called Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership. There are even murmurs that China might try to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the 11-country trade deal that Trump pulled out of in his first week in office.
Japan, a neighbor and Chinaâs second biggest export market after the United States, is an important part of this diversification effort.
China has been pressing Japanese companies to announce investment plans and deals in China during Abeâs visit, and has generally been pushing for an improvement in the relationship to offset the sharp deterioration with the United States, according to people familiar with the preparations.
This appears to be a tactical move, analysts in Tokyo say.
âIs it fundamental and long-lasting? It could just be a tactical move to deflect tensions coming from the U.S., and drive a wedge between the U.S. and Japan,â said Narushige Michishita of Japanâs National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies.
But Abeâs government is happy to go along with it for its own economic reasons. âPrime Minister Abe wishes to elevate Japan-China relations to a new level,â a Japanese government official said, asking for anonymity to preview the sensitive visit.
China is already Japanâs largest trading partner and more than 30,000 Japanese companies oper ate here, pumping more than $3.3 billion in direct investment into the country each year â" and the market is only becoming more attractive.
Chinaâs middle class now totals about 250 million people, double the entire population of Japan. That represents a tantalizing opportunity for consumer goods companies in particular, like Shiseido, the skin care company.
But Japan is now walking a tricky balancing act. Abe has poured an enormous amount of energy into developing a personal connection with Trump, and the military alliance with the United States is the cornerstone of Japanâs security.
Japan is also concerned about becoming collateral damage in the trade war. âWe donât want to see this U.S.-China trade issue to damage the international supply chain,â the Japanese official said. âJapanese companies also have stakes and could be negatively affected. We hope that dialogue between the U.S. and China will lead to a diplomatic resolution of these issues. â
Chinaâs Global Times nationalist tabloid made it clear that Abe should pay attention to how he balances his competing interests.
Japan and China could help stabilize not just Asia but the whole world, columnist Sun Xiaobo wrote. He didnât mince his words when advising Japan to pick sides. âJapan should have a clear idea of how to deal with U.S. influence in developing its relations with China,â he wrote.
But Beijing knows where Japanâs loyalties lie, said Zhou Yongsheng, a Japan expert at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing.
âJapan is still an ally of the U.S. and it will avoid adopting any policies that could undermine U.S. policies,â he said. âTherefore, we could expect ties to improve but the steps will not be huge.â
Regardless of the American factor, there is a limit to how much better relations can get. There are still plenty of historical issues causing frictions between the two countries.
Abe is hellbent on revising the pacifist constitution imposed on Japan after World War II and returning the country to a normal footing with a full-fledged military, not just âself-defense forces.â But Beijing sees this as a sign of aggression and has strongly protested Abeâs efforts to date.
There are also the continued skirmishes over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, which Japan controls but China claims.
âI think that China understands that there is a ceiling to how good this relationship can get, but right now for both Japan and China, they realize that itâs in their interests to cooperate,â said Sun of Stimson.
Indeed, all is not forgotten. Abe was initially supposed to arrive in Beijing on Oct. 23, the same day 40 years before than Deng had arrived in Tokyo. But then the Chinese government realized that another anniversary fell on Oct. 23, said author Bill Bishop, editor of the Sinocism China newsletter. That is the 150th anniversary of Japanâs Meiji Restoration, the day of the creation of the Japanese government that rampaged through Asia, including in China.
Some anniversaries, it seems, are better left unmarked.
Denyer reported from Tokyo. Luna Li n in Beijing and Akiko Kashiwagi in Tokyo contributed reporting.
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