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An Unhappy 40th Anniversary? The Prospect for Improved Japan-China Relations

Published 10 Dec 2018
Vicki Sideris

In diplomacy, anniversaries of significant milestones in bilateral relations are used to draw attention to the relationship and reflect on the positives of the past to shape the future. Japan and China have used this year’s 40th anniversary of the 1978 Treaty of Peace and Friendship to improve bilateral relations. While this diplomatic effort has seen some considerable success, it is unlikely to overcome the underlying domestic political forces and structural tensions which fuel longer-term mistrust.

Past Celebrations

This year is not the first time that Japan and China have sought a détente, as they also attempted to use the 20th and 30th anniversaries of the 1978 treaty to improve relations, to varying degrees of success. President Jiang Zemin’s 1998 visit to Japan inflamed, rather than cooled tensions over wedge issues like Taiwan and history. The 2008 anniversary briefly warmed relations, as bilateral dialogues resumed and both parties articulated a shared vision for a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.” Yet underlying security issues were sidestepped rather than resolved and the 30th anniversary’s achievements were soon undermined by succeeding clashes in the East China Sea in 2010 and 2012.

Third time’s the charm?

High-level visits and economic dialogue resumed this year. Premier Li visited Japan in April, where they introduced a long-awaited maritime and aerial communication mechanism. In October, Prime Minister Abe visited China and invited President Xi to a reciprocal visit to Japan to attend next year’s G20 in Osaka. Business was the main focus of this recent summit, as both sides reiterated their support – rhetorically at least – for multilateralism and free trade in the face of American challenges to the WTO. They secured a three-year currency swap deal valued at US$30 billion and signed 52 joint infrastructure cooperation projects in third-countries worth US$18 billion. They also agreed to cooperate on maritime search and rescue operations and resume mutual fleet visits.

Beijing is welcoming this détente with an important economic partner as it faces deteriorating trade and security relations with the US. For Abe, who is also threatened by US tariffs, securing closer ties with China complements his Abenomics agenda, which includes seeking more foreign investment opportunities for Japanese companies.

Yet as economic ties have tended to operate independently of the political relationship, the degree to which this would represent a turning point is questionable, as fundamental strategic and political issues remain unresolved.

Both countries long-term regional visions and strategies are unchanged. President Xi appears open to this detente to ensure the regional stability necessary for China’s economic development. Yet his “China Dream” also aims to eventually return China to its historical regional predominance, and it is unclear what role he envisions for Japan. This anniversary diplomacy has not reassured Japan, as it still protests Chinese vessel incursions into disputed territorial waters, which have continued despite last month’s summit.

On the other hand, Japan’s “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” strategy indicates its support for maintaining free trade, freedom of navigation and the rule of law as governing principles for the region, seen for example in Abe’s salvaging of TPP-11. On the security front, Japan is managing China’s growing capabilities with internal and external balancing. The US-Japan alliance remains the “cornerstone” of Japan’s security. As a hedge against China – and to an extent uncertain US commitment – Japan is also expanding security ties with a range of countries in the region like Australia, Vietnam and India. While there is some overlap between Japan and China’s visions, particularly around maintaining regional stability and economic cooperation, it is unclear how differences will be safely managed.

Additionally, while the summit was a significant boon for China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Japan is still cautious, expressing that it would only participate in projects that meet transparency and debt sustainability standards. Infrastructure cooperation in some BRI projects will likely continue to be balanced with some healthy competition over other projects, as Japan pursues its Partnership for Quality Infrastructure and explores potential collaboration with the US and Australia.

Future developments in domestic politics may put this anniversary’s successes at risk in the long-term. After securing leadership of his Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in September, Abe revived his goal to revise Article 9 of the constitution. As debates in the LDP, Diet and Japanese public begin, it will be telling to watch how China reacts to this sensitive issue and whether nationalistic rhetoric on both sides derails cooperation. Despite more cordial government ties, a recent Genron survey found that over 80% of the Japanese public have an “unfavourable” impression of China, meaning that outside of the business community, there is limited public pressure or political incentive to grant concessions.

The positive dialogue and pragmaticism accompanying this anniversary diplomacy have boosted relations in the short to medium term and are necessary for preventing conflict. However, similar to the 30th anniversary, a major challenge will be implementing agreements and sustaining the détente in the face of lingering security and history issues. Achieving a material improvement and stabilisation of Japan-China relations in the long-term may require fundamental shifts in the current trajectories of their regional strategies and management of domestic politics. Journalist Frank Ching noted that “there is likely to be greater cordiality in the relationship, but not necessarily greater trust.” If – or when – Japan and China are confronted with unexpected events which bring security and history, rather than economics, to the forefront, “cordiality” is not as reassuring a currency as “trust.”

Vicki Sideris is currently in her third year of a Bachelor of Commerce (International Studies), studying International Relations and International Business at the University of New South Wales. In 2017 and 2018, she spent a year studying at Georgetown University in Washington, DC. She has previously worked as a project consultant at the Social Impact Hub and as a contract administrator at Insurance Australia Group. Her main areas of interest include American and Japanese foreign policy and domestic politics and Indo-Pacific trade and security.

Vicki is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW.