On Sunday, President Xi Jinping met with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan, in an action that reflects the rapid geopolitical churning in Asia. Whether or not this marks a détente in the troubled China-Japan relationship remains to be determined. But the four-point agreement that was worked out by State Councillor Yang Jichei and Japanese National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi to enable the meeting indicates that Tokyo has walked the extra mile to assuage the Chinese.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L) with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit banquet at the Beijing National Aquatics Center on November 10. Pic/Getty Images
It has accepted the need for “facing history squarely and looking forward to the future”— short-hand for its horrific wartime role in China. Further, it has acknowledged that the two parties “had different views” about the issue of the Senkaku/Diayou islands. Japan may not quite have accepted that there is a dispute over the status of the islands, but it has come close to it.
A Chinese-Japanese détente would be a stunning coup for the Chinese. By this action, they would neutralise their most potent East Asian adversary, having already established an entente with Russia to the north. Besides its enormous economic and technological power, Japan’s location is also a very important element in East Asian politics.
Recall that the US carrier groups that have been deployed in the Taiwan Straits area in 1996 came from Yousuoka, not Hawaii or elsewhere, Japan served as the key platform for the prosecution of the US war in Korea in 1950.
Many observers believe that Beijing’s greater assertiveness since 2010 was related to the succession politics in China.
But inner party tensions compelled Xi Jinping to not only press on in the South China Sea and the East China Sea, but to actually increase the heat. Prime Minister Abe’s nationalistic posture and his decision to visit the Yasukuni Shrine last year, led to the Chinese declaration of an ADIZ covering the Senkaku/Diayou islands, which was followed by more aggressive posturing that led some observers to believe that a China-Japan military clash was in the offing.
But what this succeeded in doing is to strengthen the US-Japan ties and encourage Tokyo to move away from its pacifist moorings towards a more active role in its security. So, earlier this year in July, the Japanese Cabinet took the decision to authorise the use of force by the Japanese military for self-defence and included the concept of collective self-defence involving any attack on the forces of “a foreign country that is in a close relationship with Japan” (read the US). In other words, instead of remaining a passive element in the alliance, Japan took a step towards becoming a more equal member of the alliance.
The relations between China and Japan are far more dense than, say, the relations between India and Japan or India and China. This is not merely a result of geography and history, but of globalisation.
Trade between the two countries is around $350 billion and rose last year for the first time since 2012 when political tensions negatively affected it.
If China is a destination of Japanese exporters battling a sluggish economy back home, Japan is the source of many components and sub-assemblies that make the Chinese export miracle what it is. China imports more from Japan than any other country mainly high-tech components and capital equipment for its manufacturing sector. Japan’s expertise in areas like energy efficiency is something that China covets because that will enable it to become a more efficient producer of goods. But Japan is no match for Chinese military power and its World War II history has created a deeply pacific mindset within the country, something that Abe cannot ignore.
Recently, China too began to feel the effects of an economic slowdown. While the Chinese leadership has kept a brave face and indicated their decision to press on, they have also realised that a further deepening of the economic problems, arising out of their dust-up with Japan, could have negative consequences for internal stability. Equally important, they realised that their actions were pushing Japan to take a more assertive military and political posture.
One manifestation of this was the growing ties with countries like India and Vietnam, as well as a strengthening of relations with the United States.
Awareness of these factors have helped both sides to pull back from the brink. This year, Abe did not visit the Yasukuni Shrine on August 15, the anniversary of Japan’s surrender in World War II. Earlier, in May, the two countries held their first minister-level talks on the sidelines of a session of the APEC forum in Quingdao, and later the two foreign ministers met in Myanmar. Subsequently, in the run up to the APEC summit, the officials of the two sides met and drew up the four-point agreement that was arrived at last Friday and which enabled the Xi-Abe meeting of Sunday.
The easing of China-Japan tensions is a positive development, but it is unlikely to lead to an entente between the two countries.
Chinese economic and political power remains on the ascendant, while that of Japan is refusing to budge from its relatively stagnant position. Addressing a group of CEOs on the sidelines of the APEC meeting in Beijing, not only did Xi pledge $40 billion to develop connectivity through the “Silk Road” initiative, but held out the promise of a massive outbound investment surge by China in excess of $1.25 trillion over the next 10 years. He also said that China would import more than $10 trillion in goods and send more than 500 million tourists abroad in the next five years.
These are huge numbers and their consequences will not just be economic, but political.
The writer is a Distinguished Fellow, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi