Expert Speak Raisina Debates
Published on Jun 14, 2017
The expression "economically warm and politically cold" is perhaps very apt to characterise their relations in recent years.
The state of play in Sino-Japanese relations This is the nineteenth part in the series The China Chronicles. Read all the articles here.
Japan and China are commemorating the forty fifth anniversary of the normalisation of their relations this year. Their partnership, one of the biggest in the Asia Pacific, has a great bearing on the peace and stability of the region. Their bilateral trade with a volume of about $340 billion is the largest in the whole region. In a closely integrated and interdependent Asia Pacific region, it is not appropriate to look at Sino-Japanese relations only in their narrow bilateral framework. Their strategic and economic interests go far beyond impinging on a variety of regional and global issues including maritime security, regional economic development, and global climate change, to mention only a few. As many analysts acknowledge, it is hard to think of peace and stability in the Asia Pacific region in the absence of cordial relations between China and Japan. Yet, tensions between the two in recent years have raised serious concerns about the future of their relations and the consequent implications for the region as a whole.

The expression "economically warm and politically cold" is perhaps very apt to characterise their relations in recent years. Bilateral relations have been marred by historical and territorial issues and they have been further exacerbated by the nationalistic approaches adopted by both countries. Yet they have maintained a fair level of economic interactions. Their economies have a high degree of complementarity with differences in their industrial and technological capabilities. This provides considerable scope for mutual cooperation in several spheres. China is Japan's biggest trading partner as well as the biggest destination for Japan's investment.

In contrast, in the political sphere, their relations have been severely strained by historical and territorial issues, and quite often political tensions tended to threaten the prospects of economic cooperation. During 2001-06, when Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi was at the helm, his visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine brought bilateral ties to the lowest point, but the economic ties remained steady with substantial growth in trade and investment. Japan's official development assistance (ODA) continued to flow to China for its economic development.

During his first tenure as prime minister in 2006, Shinzo Abe selected China as the first country for his official visit abroad and signed a joint statement with his Chinese counterpart that underlined the importance of fostering "mutually beneficial relations based on common strategic interests" which became a diplomatic template for subsequent Japanese governments. This was followed by several positive developments such as defence dialogue, reciprocal naval visits, and joint training for search and rescue missions.

But Abe's tenure came to an abrupt end in 2007 itself and was followed by a series of short-lived cabinets until 2012. The Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ ) which was in power during 2009-12 could not carry on any meaningful dialogue with China . On the contrary, the Senkaku issue for the first time assumed serious dimensions following the collision of Chinese and Japanese ships in 2010 and later the nationalisation of the islands by Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. From then on, the Senkaku issue suddenly changed the whole tenor of the bilateral relations. In a bid to assert its rights, China started sending its surveillance ships close to the territorial waters near the islands almost on a daily basis and on some occasions, Chinese aircraft also violated Japan's air space. In addition, China also started harping on the pre-war military excesses committed by the Japanese military in China such as the Nanking incident and comfort women. The situation in the East China Sea became so tense that many in Japan and the US feared that a military clash could occur due to miscalculation or accident.

Abe, who came back to power in December 2012 with a comfortable majority in the Japanese Diet, took a strong position on the Senkaku issue. In addition, his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 followed by a series of security measures he undertook, strained the bilateral relations and led to China's termination of all important exchanges with Japan including the summit level meetings.

In the meantime, China's assertive maritime activities in South China Sea drew a lot of global attention and Japan, the US and their allies strongly criticised China's construction of artificial islands in the area. In various regional forums, Abe strongly advocated that all nations have the right to freedom of navigation in open seas and that no country can change the status quo by force. Abe also extended security oriented economic aid to countries like the Philippines and Vietnam. His strong stand on the South China Sea issue including his support to the International Arbitral Tribunal's verdict was denounced by China as unwarranted since Japan was not a party directly involved in the dispute.

Despite the prolonged tension and turmoil in the bilateral relations, one should also note there have been indications of a desire particularly from Japan to slowly resume normal exchanges. Influential Japanese leaders such as Yasuo Fukuda, Masahiko Komura, and Toshihiro Nikai have maintained close links with the ruling establishment in China and they have played a key role in arranging meetings between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Abe on the sidelines of some regional forums. Though the first two meetings held on the sidelines of the APEC meeting at Beijing in 2014 and later at Jakarta in 2015 were not marked by any particular warmth, the third meeting held at the time of the G-20 gathering at Hangzhou in September 2016 proved to be quite significant as both leaders underlined the need to develop normal relations and move forward.

In the last week of May 2017, the fourth round of political dialogue was held in Tokyo and it was co-chaired by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Japanese National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi. Both sides exchanged views frankly on bilateral and regional issues and reaffirmed their resolve to enhance their cooperative relations. Both sides are eager to resume the high-level economic dialogue which has not met since 2010. There are reports that they are very keen to arrange a regular one-on-one summit meeting between Xi and Abe.

Both countries immediately see two important areas for possible cooperation in the coming years. The first one pertains to North Korea, which has conducted a series of nuclear and missile tests in recent months in defiance of UN Security Council resolutions. As the US administration under President Donald Trump has pinned a great deal of expectation on Beijing for restraining Pyongyang, Japan located so close to the North Korean threat, would like to stay on good terms with Beijing and cooperate.

The second relates to the question of how to deal with the protectionist policies of the Trump administration. In the first week of May, officials of Japan, China South Korea met in Yokohama and agreed to resist all forms of protectionism. China specially took a firm position as a supporter of free trade in the wake of Trump's America First policy.

To conclude, in the pursuit of their relations, both Japan and China have adopted a very pragmatic policy of separating politics from economics. Currently, bilateral economic relations are relatively stable. But with political tensions increasing, it would be a challenge to always separate politics from economics. Given the enormous size of the partnership and its relevance to the peace and stability of the Asia Pacific region, both countries should work out multilayered channels of communication for ensuring a steady and stable relationship.

The views expressed above belong to the author(s). ORF research and analyses now available on Telegram! Click here to access our curated content — blogs, longforms and interviews.


K. V. Kesavan

K. V. Kesavan

K.V. Kesavan (1938 2021) was Visiting Distinguished Fellow at ORF. He was one of the leading Indian scholars in the field of Japanese studies. Professor ...

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