In 2019, Anbound think tank in Beijing argued multiple times about the significance of the Sino-Japanese relationship in the context of the degenerating US-China relations.
However, the global structure is getting even more unstable compared with that time: Washington and Beijing have already stepped into a new Cold War; Europe has become increasingly independent in its foreign policy, and the domestic situation in Japan is also shifting.
In the current status, it has been crystal clear for most people that the US-China relationship would shape the world for the following several decades, whereas only a few understand that the key of this bilateral relationship is not itself, but the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo.
If China and the US are bringing uncertainties to this world, Tokyo is one of a few stabilising factors left in today’s international politics. Because of the impact of COVID-19, the Hong Kong issue, and the continuation of the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, it is clear in Japan that the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan is not likely to happen in 2020. The Asahi Shimbun recently published an article arguing the similar ideas, and it is echoing around in the senior level of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In this context’s another turning point of the geopolitical game in Asia.
Japan also faces uncertainties about its future. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is going to retire in 2021 in the meantime, China and the US are heading against each other, which could destroy Japan along with their clash. They care about geopolitics, not only because they are studious, but also because it literally affects their lives and business. The economic factors have been a crucial factor in the post-war Japan policy. Japan has technologies, capital and experience and there are not many market spaces left for them in this world.
In fact, based on our experiences, there actually is an impulse in Japan’s business world to further cooperate with China, not just because this cooperation could be mutual-beneficial. It is also because China and Japan are much more like each other in their cultural customs and ways of thinking. Furthermore, this unique character also means that Tokyo really needs an excellent persuasion before it decides to lean more toward Beijing than Washington, which is their current path. First, the Japanese people care about details and therefore they need far much more answers from China than merely the statement of the Chinese governments. Beijing has to respect and meet Tokyo’s expectations. Questions such as how China will treat Japan if Tokyo decided to shift its geopolitical focus, how committed China will be in this vision, what China will do to bring these two counties closer, have to be answered directly to Japanese decision-makers, perhaps multiple times.
Second, unlike most Western countries, Japan does understand Chinese politics, which made it fully aware that many of the official statements do not really hold long enough in China and only the top leadership matters. This is why leader-diplomacy is crucial now as they need to hear the answers directly from the top Chinese leader before they, as preferred by China, change their path fundamentally.
The leader-diplomacy could not be the silver bullet, but it is the beginning of everything. China needs to do more to secure the benign relationship between Beijing and Tokyo. The “1+3” model to depict the current world status (US + China, Japan and Germany), and a “super-sovereignty solution for the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands”. Actually the Sino-Japanese relationship is the last and the most essential safety net between a total discord world and the decisive point of the Chinese grand strategy.
Look around the possible candidates after PM Abe (Shigeru Ishiba, Toshihiro Nikai, Fumio Kishida, Toshimitsu Motegi, and Katsunobu Katō), most of them understand the strategy of PM Abe, which tries to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing, whereas it is also true that every one of them could move closer to the right and choose Washington in the future, especially considering the speed of the declining US-China relations has gone faster than most anticipated. From the Chinese perspective, that would be the worst scenario they could ever imagine: facing two the most powerful countries singlehandedly at the same time. The window is closing for China, and the way forward will not be easy. If successful, President Xi Jinping’s future visit to Japan will serve as an anchoring point for a Chinese “bright future”, hence Beijing should push for this visit to take place at the soonest time possible.
Chan Kung is Anbound chief researcher. Yu (Tony) Pan serves as his associate research fellow