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Column: Nikai’s visits to China and the U.S.-China relationship

By Yoshihisa Komori, special correspondent in Washington


From my long years of watching trends in the Japan-U.S.-China trilateral relationship, it would seem that whenever the U.S.-China relationship deteriorates and the Japan-U.S. alliance becomes stronger, the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) Toshihiro Nikai would visit China.


This would seem a curious pattern of cause and effect but a closer look actually shows that there is indeed a logic behind this pattern.


In May 2000, then Transport Minister Nikai visited Beijing as the head of a delegation with 5,000 members. This was a trip that representatives of the travel and tourism industries were mobilized to participate in. They were welcomed by President Jiang Zemin and Vice President Hu Jintao at a ceremony held in the Great Hall of the People, which was clearly a China-led friendship event.


I was then a correspondent in Beijing as the head of Sankei Shimbun’s General Bureau for China. Witnessing this ceremony, I was dumbfounded by the sudden about-face in China’s hitherto frigid attitude toward Japan.


At that time, the Clinton administration was taking an increasingly tough stance toward China on account of its military intimidation of Taiwan. It was calling on Japan to build a joint missile defense system and to strengthen the bilateral alliance.


Multiple informed sources were unanimous in their analysis then that the Chinese leadership had judged that under the circumstances, it would be disadvantageous to be antagonistic to both the U.S. and Japan, so it had begun to show its fleeting smile to Japan.


In May 2015, Nikai led a 3,000-member delegation to Beijing as the LDP General Council chair. He had an amicable meeting with President Xi Jinping. At that time, China was also taking a tough stance toward Japan over the Senkaku Islands and history issues. For this reason, Nikai’s visit to China came as a surprise.


It was also a time when the U.S. was taking an increasingly tough posture toward China. The conciliatory Obama administration had finally begun to react strongly to China’s lawless military expansion in the South China Sea, the designation of an intimidating air defense identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, and other actions. At that time, Japan and the U.S. had just adopted their new Defense Cooperation Guidelines, which was a landmark event in the Japan-U.S. security alliance. This situation resembled the state of the U.S.-China relationship and the Japan-U.S. alliance in 2000.


Finally, Nikai visited China again as the LDP secretary general with his Komeito counterpart Yoshihisa Inoue last month. He was welcomed by Xi and Japan was strongly urged to participate in the Belt and Road Initiative.


What is noteworthy here is that this came at a time when the Trump administration indicated a confrontational posture toward China and firmly adopted the stance of strengthening the bonds of the Japan-U.S. alliance in its new National Security Strategy. Therefore, the conditions were ripe to motivate China to call upon Japan for “friendship” and “dialogue,” to attempt to soften Japan, and to interfere with its collaboration with the U.S. It is quite natural that China should go to Nikai, a political heavyweight who will not oppose China’s policies, in its execution of these policies.


The danger of this smile diplomacy lies in the fact that China will never change its real policy toward Japan, which mainly consists of using history to promote anti-Japan policies and the aggressive policy of repeated intrusions into Japanese territorial waters near the Senkakus and seizing the islands with military force. It appears that like on previous occasions, Nikai did not also voice any criticism of such strongly hostile policies toward Japan during his latest visit.

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