Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s ongoing official visit to China is adding new impetus to Beijing-Tokyo ties. Leaders from both sides have expressed their willingness and determination to further develop bilateral cooperation. A number of agreements have been inked, including on joint investment in infrastructure projects in third-country markets. These achievements have laid a crucial and positive foundation for the future improvement of bilateral ties.
Will China and Japan use this round of improvement in bilateral ties as a new starting point to establish an irreversible trend of boosting their collaboration? For now, it is hard to tell. But such a possibility exists and it is worthwhile for the two sides to jointly strive for it.
The confrontation between Beijing and Tokyo had been the most intense conflict either side had experienced with a foreign nation in recent years. But the foundation of the Sino-Japanese relationship is not that weak.
For some time, the dispute between China and Japan over the Diaoyu Islands had been like an active volcano that erupted occasionally. But China also has territorial disputes with other countries, with the size involved or the complexity even greater than the Diaoyu Islands. The size of the disputed territories between Japan and Russia is also larger than the Diaoyu Islands.
In terms of historical issues, Japanese right-wing forces refuse to reflect on the country’s war crimes, and this challenges all of Asia and even the world. Some people in Japan play with historical issues to vent their emotions against China to solidify their national identity.
Relations between Beijing and Tokyo were not supposed to have deteriorated to such an extent. Japanese society has no reason to hate China. Trade volume between the two sides has been very large. China is Japan’s largest trade partner. China’s rise changes the balance of power in Asia and this makes Japan feel bitter and insecure. But it is not reasonable to treat China’s rise as a far more influential impact on Sino-Japanese ties than other aspects.
The ups and downs in their bilateral relationship should be seen more as improper interactions between the two countries rather than any one side being to blame. In addition, the US has become a long-term, strategic negative impact on ties between Beijing and Tokyo. Washington’s intervention in the relationship is sometimes overt and sometimes imperceptible. One of the tasks of the US’ East Asia policy is to prevent closer Sino-Japanese ties in order to consolidate Washington’s own political and military presence in the region.
From a longer-term perspective, Japan will have more trouble in its relations with the US. The inequality in the US-Japan alliance is particularly prominent compared with the relationship between Washington and its other allies. The US military presence in Japan has to a large extent suppressed Japan’s national sovereignty. The biggest obstacle for Japan to become a “normal country” undoubtedly comes from the US.
Yet we are optimistic about the momentum of improvement in Sino-Japanese relations. We believe that efforts to end the diplomatic wrangling and achieve win-win cooperation should be an attainable strategic adjustment for both sides. We hope our observation will materialise.