Is the Sign of Thaw in Japan-China Ties Sincere and Real?
Prof Rajaram Panda
Introduction

The US President hosted the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco, California on 16 November 2023. It was an opportunity for the leaders of many leading countries such as the US, Japan and China to discuss threadbare some of the issues that have troubled their bilateral relations. What hogged the limelight was the calming of the US-China ties, but another bilateral tie that received less attention than it deserved was the thaw in ties between Japan and China. Though this essay shall dwell on this issue, it would not be out of context to mention briefly that the summit provided an opportunity for US President Joe Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping to improve military communications, crack down on Fentanyl production and possibly reignite their panda diplomacy programme. The details of what transpired between the two nations are reserved to be analysed separately.

In recent times, there has been a spate of deep rifts on issues such as national security and the economy between Japan and China. In a welcome development, when Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for the first time in 2023, the frosty ties showed signs of melting when they reaffirmed their commitment to “a mutually beneficial relationship” between the two countries. Though talks signalled cautious detente between the two, it would be premature to say that the leaders made concrete progress as bilateral ties continue to remain hostage to divisive political issues for which no easy solution could be expected in the near term. For now, the leaders decided to focus on prioritising improvement in economic ties that were affected at the outbreak of the Covid-19.[1]

That Xi and Kishida pledged to address the existing sources of frictions and expressed commitment to “coexist peacefully” was in itself a positive development. Xi’s readiness for a thaw was seen by observers as his charm offensive to shore up ties with indo-Pacific leaders, including US President Biden. Like the strained ties between the US and China, Japan-China ties were also a matter of worry as larger issue of regional stability was involved. As two neighbours, Japan-China relations are more important for regional stability than the Sino-US ties that are equally strained.

As neighbours, both share a long history, sometimes not a happy past, but there is a commitment to look for the future and not allow historical irritant to overwhelm the present economic and political relations. That is not easy. But there is a realisation that both need to work together to peacefully coexist and prosper together, so that both can contribute to regional stability and world peace.

The year 2023 marks the 45th anniversary of the signing of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries. Keeping this important milestone, it dawned on both the leaders that divergent views need to be handled dispassionately for common good, which is why Chinese Prime Minister Li Qiang and Kishida traded congratulatory messages to mark the 45th year of the landmark pact amid frosty ties. Displaying “strategic foresight” behind the treaty, Li focussed on peaceful co-existence, long-lasting friendship and opposition to hegemony.[2] These two core principles are enshrined in the peace and friendship treaty.

It may be recalled that the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People’s Republic of China was signed in August 1978, six years after the normalisation of diplomatic ties. It took effect on 23 October that year. In between, both countries have been at odds over several geopolitical issues, the most recent being when Japan started releasing radioactive waste water from Japan’s Tsunami-stricken Fukushima nuclear plant on 24 August 2023. The fallout of this saw Li and Kishida trade barbs in Jakarta on 6 September at the ASEAN Plus Three summit, involving the 10 members of the ASEAN bloc plus Japan, China and South Korea. Li and Kishida had spoken briefly on the sidelines at the time.

This time, there seemed to have been change of heart and a willingness on the part of China to repair damage with Japan. Li used the occasion marking the 45th anniversary of the peace treaty and expressed China’s willingness to work to relive the spirit of the treaty and build a relationship so that the current challenges in the region may be jointly and collectively with other nations may be addressed.

Li and Kishida recalled that the bilateral accord stipulated that the two countries “shall in their mutual relations settle all disputes by peaceful means and shall refrain from the use or threat of force” and that “neither of them should seek hegemony”, and shall oppose efforts by any other countries to establish such hegemony. These were the core principles enshrined in accordance of which bilateral relations were to be handled. Given China’s recent behaviour on many bilateral and regional issues, one wonders if such guiding principles were followed by China in addressing the risks and challenges facing the world. Therefore, there has to be cautious optimism and not blind belief in what China says about its adherence to the peace treaty with Japan.

Only the credulous would believe that the legacy issues like territorial disputes such as in Senkaku islands and wartime history are no longer priorities for China in dealing with Japan. These are still alive. Further, bilateral ties have become frosty when Japan raised concerns about Beijing’s growing military might and security in the Taiwan Strait. China’s encroachment over the strategic South China Sea waterway through which trillions of dollars of merchandise goods are traded has become a serious matter of concern to many Asian and even European nations as their trade with many Asian countries would be impacted. Because of this, the US has been making serious effort to keep Beijing in check in partnership with Asian allies, including Japan.

The latest thorny issue that has threatened ties to be blown over is concerning Japan’s decision after obtaining clearance from the IAEA to release the radioactive waste water from Fukushima nuclear reactors. Against this background, it is to be seen carefully if China’s reiteration to commit to the guidelines of the peace and friendship treaty makes any sense.

A trilateral meeting between the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea is expected in late 2023 and this issue may be further discussed. South Korea has already proposed a three-way ministerial gathering in late December 2022 to lay the groundwork for the leaders’ summit. Japan’s foreign minister Yoko Kamikawa too confirmed about a trilateral ministerial meet under planning. The dates are yet to be confirmed. The leaders’ summit, launched in 2008, has not been held since 2019 amid the Covid-19 pandemic and strained ties between Japan and China. Both Japan and China are likely to face perilous predicaments in handling ties.

Trade Issue

There are differences in several trade-related issues that have affected bilateral ties. While in San Francisco, Xi and Kishida agreed to establish a new dialogue framework on trade. This is a significant announcement in the sense that the issue of restrictions on semiconductors and other key technological components are thorny issues and remain to be resolved.

One needs to assess carefully the conciliatory tone by the leaders but one cannot overlook the fact that bilateral ties tumbled to fresh lows a year ago. Then when on 24 August 2023, after Japan released 1.3 million tons of radioactive treated waste water from the crippled Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant, Beijing announced blanket import ban on all Japanese seafood. This restriction struck a blow to Japan’s marine sector, especially that of Hokkaido, and thus irked Tokyo. Japan was provoked to issue a formal complaint and threatened to bring the case to the World Trade Organisation. Since then, both have repeatedly clashed at international meetings. Beijing did not stop from vehemently condemning the release of what it claimed to be “nuclear-contaminated water”. Since Japan had already obtained the clearance from the IAEA for the release, it demanded that Beijing immediately lifts its unscientific measure.

In 2022, China and Hong Kong represented the two largest markets for Japan’s fishing industry, with exports amounting to 42 per cent of total sales overseas. The same year, China was Japan’s largest trading partner, ahead of the US. Therefore, Japan had reason to be worried about the import restrictions on its seafood exports imposed by China.

Despite the show of thaw, Beijing is unlikely to reverse its trade restrictions so quickly after few months of raising red alarm. Beijing’s accusations could have political overtones as Japanese marine products constitute a surprisingly small portion of China’s total seafood imports. The political overtone could have bearing on strategic issues as Japan makes efforts to boost its own defence spending as well as building regional military partnership to deter China, especially on the security of Taiwan which it considers as its own. Kishida too is unlikely to soften Japan’s position easily as during his talks with Xi he reiterated his concerns over China’s military operations in the region and demanded the removal of a buoy installed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone. The issue is thus complicated.

However, it was encouraging that notwithstanding serious political disagreements, both showed signs of willingness to remain engaged in dialogue and discussion and keep their economic and trade ties on track. Xi and Kishida also announced that a framework to discuss export controls has been set up where the economic ministers of both countries shall be tasked with addressing critical economic issues and seek solutions. When Washington first set the recent export controls, Japan as an ally soon joined in early 2023. Tokyo imposed restrictions on 23 chip-making tools to align with the US policy aimed at restricting China’s ability to provide advanced semiconductors. The new framework shall address such issues to protect their mutual economic interests. Though Japan subscribed to the US’ export control policy, there are some rooms for Japan to manoeuvre without offending its US ally.

Another issue the economic ministers shall address is on improving business environment, including safety of Japanese business personnel in China. This issue is too sensitive for the Japanese and requires deft handling. Japan was concerned that China charged one of its executives working at a pharmaceutical company and sentenced him to 12 years in a Chinese prison on espionage charges. This worsened already strained business ties. The spotlight soon shifted on the number of Japanese nationals jailed in China. These are sensitive issues where diplomacy must come to play its important role.

Assessment

Viewed objectively and dispassionately, Japan-China ties, despite signs of a thaw, are destined to go through some turbulent journey. From all possible indicators, it seems that China is unlikely to become flexible when it comes to its strategic interests as such a course would compromise the Communist Party’s long-term goal to make China as the number one country in the world. It is only in the economic domain one can imagine some flexibility and Beijing may be willing to work in a spirit of accommodation with its economic partners to protect its own economic interests. Therefore the sign of thaw shown in San Francisco needs to be viewed with a sense of scepticism.

Endnotes

[1] Gabriele Ninivaggi and Gabriel Dominguez, “Kishida and Xi aim for trade progress despite lingering tensions”, The Japan Times, 17 November 2023, https://www.japantimes.co.jp/news/2023/11/17/japan/politics/xi-kishida-meeting/?utm_source=pianodnu&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=72&tpcc=dnu&pnespid=.e2dltvr.babo

[2]Alyssa Chen, “China wants to ‘work with Japan to relive spirit’ of 1978 peace and friendship treaty”, 23 October 2023, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3238872/china-wants-work-japan-relive-spirit-1978-peace-and-friendship-treaty?module=hard_link&pgtype=article

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>


Image Source: https://www.japantimes.co.jp/japantimes/uploads/images/2023/11/09/262302.jpg

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