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A review of Abe’s China diplomacy

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s diplomatic season has started. Diplomacy is one of his strengths and he has indeed made certain achievements in the three years and eight months since the start of the second Abe administration. However, there is still work to be done. Following is a review of the present state of Abe’s diplomacy.


After the Japan-China-ROK foreign ministerial was held in Japan for the first time in five years on Aug. 24, Abe met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi and ROK Foreign Minister Yun Byung-se at the Kantei [Prime Minister’s Official Residence]. He stated at the meeting: “Cooperation among the three countries is important for regional peace and stability,” showing confidence in building good relations with Japan’s neighbors.


At the trilateral ministerial held before this meeting, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida and Wang had not made any comments to reporters at the beginning of the meeting. A Japanese Foreign Ministry source revealed that “this was the result of prior coordination between the two sides.” At his meeting with National Security Secretariat chief Shotaro Yachi on Aug. 25, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang said that while the bilateral relationship has “improved,” it remains “fragile.”


Since he assumed office, Abe has been conscious of the need to transform the balance of power in East Asia, which was in China’s favor. In order to win over the ROK, which had been siding with China on the history issues, he worked on strengthening relations with the U.S. first, using this as leverage to improve relations with the ROK.


The Japan-ROK agreement on the comfort women issue last December was one of his achievements. Abe even decided to contribute 1 billion yen to the ROK foundation helping the former comfort women despite persistent opposition at home. This was a conciliatory approach toward the ROK based on Abe’s realism in his diplomacy. However, Abe had actually wanted to adopt a conciliatory approach to China, and not the ROK, at first.


“If relations with China improve, they will likewise improve with the ROK.” Abe had the experience of succeeding in doing this during his first administration. He had also set the goal of building a “mutually beneficial strategic relationship” with China in his first policy speech to the Diet at the start of his second administration.


He called on China to “expand the scope of common interests regardless of political frictions” and made strenuous efforts to build a stable relationship. His statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II, which expressed “remorse” and “apology,” and his refraining from visiting  Yasukuni Shrine on this anniversary were both messages of reconciliation to China.


However, he miscalculated on the Senkaku issue; he didn’t realize this issue was such a  deep-rooted thorn in the relationship from China’s perspective. His scenario for settling the history issues and moving right ahead to improve relations fell through. Even today, Chinese government ships are still flocking to the Senkaku sea area.


Abe tried to contain China’s provocations in the Senkakus by criticizing China in the international community. He cooperated with the Philippines on the South China Sea issue, drawing a verdict denying China’s sovereignty from the Permanent Court of Arbitration for this purpose.


Recently, whenever Abe received a briefing on foreign policy issues, he often asked what China was doing in that particular country. His “diplomacy with a global perspective” also means diplomacy conscious of China’s presence everywhere in the world.


According to a source on Japan-China relations, Foreign Minister Wang Yi appeared  very annoyed at Japan’s obstinate calls for China to abide by the Court of Arbitration’s decision during a meeting in early August, claiming that “Abe has a split personality.”


On the other hand, China has also taken advantage of Japan’s diplomatic weaknesses. China was hesitant to support a UN Security Council (UNSC) resolution condemning North Korea’s launch of a ballistic missile on Aug. 3. It demonstrated to Japan that it is impossible to contain North Korea without its cooperation.


It is Japan’s longstanding dream to become a permanent UNSC member in order to overcome the China “wall.” During the TICAD meeting in Kenya on Aug. 27-28, Abe met with many leaders of Africa, which accounts for a substantial number of votes in the United Nations, to seek their support for Japan’s permanent membership in the UNSC. While some of these countries showed their support, it is still impossible to become a permanent UNSC member without good relations with China.


The Chinese Global Times criticized Abe’s announcement of $30 billion in aid for Africa as “a sign of rivalry with China.” Japan has not come up with any plans to cooperate with China on projects in Africa.


China is currently closely following discussion of extending the term of office of the Liberal Democratic Party’s president. If it has to deal with Abe for some time to come, it cannot afford to ignore him.


President Xi Jinping is expected to meet with Abe for the first time in 18 months during the G20 Summit in China in September. However, as long as the two countries “talk without trust” (in the words of a source on Japan-China diplomacy), opportunities for economic cooperation may simply become occasions for political maneuvering. Prospects remain uncertain as to whether the process of pursuing “mutual benefits” will begin to move forward.

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