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Japan, China should prevent free fall of ties

By Kiyoshi Sugawa | | Updated: 2024-05-24 11:10
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The distance between Tokyo and Beijing is greater than that between Beijing and Washington DC.

If you were a geography teacher in an elementary school, you would fail the student who wrote the above sentence. But from the perspective of the current political communication between Japan, China and the United States, there is nothing wrong with this expression.

The so-called China-US rivalry has intensified in recent years. Yet China and the US have been trying at the highest levels to normalize bilateral relations after President Xi Jinping and US President Joe Biden held a summit last November. More recently, US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Secretary of Treasury Janet Yellen visited China. Communications at such levels may not end tensions, but they will undoubtedly set guardrails for bilateral diplomatic relations.

In contrast, high-level government-to-government exchanges between Japan and China are close to zero. The last time a Japanese Cabinet minister visited China was in April 2023 when then foreign minister Yoshimasa Hayashi paid a visit to China. Even that was the first visit by a Japanese foreign minister to China in three years and three months. And Wang Yi was the last Chinese foreign minister to visit Japan in November 2020.

Even after Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met with the top Chinese leader in San Francisco last November, there have been no reciprocal visits by Japanese and Chinese ministers. And although a few ministerial meetings have been held in third countries, they were not of much help in normalizing Sino-Japanese relations.

According to a hypothesis doing the rounds, the deterioration of Japan-China relations reflects the intensification of the Sino-US rift. This may be partly true, but the idea that the stabilization of Sino-US relations will automatically lead to an improvement in Sino-Japanese ties is wrong.

While the decline in China's image among US citizens started accelerating without clear reasons in the early 2010s, the rapid deterioration among the Japanese people began as early as the 2000s.

That the deterioration of China's image among the Japanese public preceded that among the American public prompted the Japanese government to toughen its stance toward China. Behind this shift was the dramatic change in the balance of power between the two countries. The stagnant Japanese economy was overtaken by the fast-developing Chinese economy in 2010 — Japan's GDP is now less than a quarter of China's. Along with this, the fact that the two countries are neighbors has made the Japanese people feel more threatened by China than Americans or Europeans. No wonder Japanese political parties and media today are eager to pander to and promote the public perception of China as a threat.

More important, for those who want to free Japan from its postwar military asceticism, nothing is more convenient than the "China threat" theory to achieve their goal.

The frosty Japan-China relationship is extremely unfortunate for both sides. Obsessed with the idea that China is a threat, Japan is trying to deter China by strengthening its military capabilities and security ties with the West, especially the US. However, if Japan interferes in the Taiwan question in order to strengthen the Japan-US alliance, a confrontation between Japan and China will become inevitable, leading to the opposite of what Japan wants.

Since the Japanese economy will not be able to recover from its perpetual slump without cooperation with China, Tokyo will continue to be held hostage to the perception of "China threat". For China, Japan's economic importance may have declined compared with that in the 20th century, but its strategic importance has increased due to Japan's geographic location and the not insignificant capabilities of its Self-Defense Forces. If Tokyo continues to urge Washington to adopt a hard-line policy toward China, it will also have a negative impact on the management of the Sino-US rivalry.

It is therefore necessary that the Japanese and Chinese governments increase their contacts at the ministerial level. It is desirable for the Japanese government to officially and unequivocally state that it does not support "Taiwan independence", so as to facilitate the two governments' engagement in "dialogue and consultation" on the disputed islands, which is one of the major concerns for Japanese people, as well as the Chinese people.

The goal is to discuss concrete measures to "prevent the deterioration of the situation, establish a crisis management mechanism and avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances" as the two sides agreed in November 2014. Even if these hurdles are too high to cross, Japan and China must implement what agreed to during the meeting of the two countries' leaders in November 2023. The two governments should resume the high-level economic dialogue as soon as possible and collaborate to promote the green economy, including environmental protection, and ecological and energy conservation, as well as healthcare.

The good news we have been waiting for is that the China-Japan-ROK trilateral leaders' meeting will soon take place and that Liu Jianchao, head of the International Department of the Communist Party of China, may also visit Japan. I strongly hope that these developments will be the beginning of a thaw.

Yet, as someone who has been observing Japan's political situation from Tokyo, I am not very optimistic about the improvement of Japan-China relations. Since Japan's House of Representatives will be dissolved and a general election held by July next year at the latest, even if China shows the will to improve bilateral ties, it is unlikely that Japanese policymakers would show flexibility.

The only way to improve Japan-China ties is increase people-to-people exchanges. If Japanese and Chinese people meet each other, they will realize that many of the messages coming from politicians and the media, including social media, are propaganda. In particular, it is important to revive exchanges between Japanese and Chinese youths through tourism and student exchanges, and by revising visa policies. We may have to wait 10 years, though, for this to have an impact.

But if nothing is done, the distance between Japan and China will continue to grow. Let's not give up hope. After all, a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.

The author a senior research fellow at the East Asian Community Institute, an independent private think tank based in Tokyo. The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

The views don't necessarily reflect those of China Daily.

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