China has taken advantage of its military and economic might to increase its presence in the world while the influence of the United States, which has supported the post-Cold War global order, has waned.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has taken 55 overseas trips since he took over the reins of government in late 2012, the largest number among successive Japanese prime ministers. Abe has visited the United States, with which Tokyo is trying to strengthen its alliance, 10 times.
In sharp contrast, the prime minister has visited China on only two occasions, to attend international conferences. Relations between Japan and China have been chilly since the Japanese government purchased three of the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture from a private owner in 2012, as the islands are also claimed by Beijing. During the past five Japan-China summit meetings, neither of the leaders has shown a smile.
The worsening of bilateral relations has cast a shadow over cooperation between the two countries in responding to North Korean’s recent acts. Rebuilding Tokyo’s diplomatic policy toward Beijing is the most serious diplomatic challenge for the Abe administration.
Japan and China are scheduled to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral diplomatic relations this coming autumn and the 40th anniversary of the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China in 2018. Five years ago, Japan and China cancelled a series of events to commemorate the 40th and 35th anniversaries because of their conflict over the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands. Japan and China share the view that the upcoming commemorative events should be successful. There are observations that China will likely move to improve its relations with Japan if the Chinese Communist Party convention this coming autumn is successful.
In a summit meeting held in Germany in July, the Japanese and Chinese leaders confirmed the need for level dialogue between the two countries. They also agreed to hold a trilateral summit with South Korea at an early date, creating an environment for improving ties.
It is necessary to take this opportunity to heighten momentum toward improving bilateral relations, transforming conflict into dialogue.
Foreign Minister Taro Kono met with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi on his fifth day as a member of the Abe Cabinet. Kono was appointed as a member of the recently reshuffled Abe Cabinet in what was widely taken as a surprise move. Wang told Kono that he was “disappointed” at his Japanese counterpart’s criticism of China over its moves in the South China Sea. Kono responded by telling Wang that Beijing should “learn how to behave as a big power.”
The conversation appears to be an exchange of harsh words, but Wang also told Kono, “Your father, Mr. Yohei Kono, has devoted himself to promoting friendship between Japan and China.”
Yohei Kono, who also served as speaker of the House of Representatives, has maintained close relations with prominent figures in China, holding talks individually with State Councilor Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat, even since the elder Kono retired as a legislator.
Foreign Minister Kono also attaches importance to Japan’s relations with its Asian neighbors. Wang apparently hopes the Konos will play a key role in improving bilateral ties.
Kono’s predecessor, Fumio Kishida, tended to be overshadowed by diplomacy led by the prime minister’s office. However, Kono is free of restraint by Prime Minister Abe. His appointment as foreign minister may increase the flexibility of Japan’s diplomacy. The Abe government should fully utilize such advantages in terms of timing and human resources in its policy toward China.