What kind of relationship does Japan seek to establish with China, which is throwing its weight around the world?
Chinese President Xi Jinping’s scheduled state visit to Japan next year should be an opportunity to lay a foundation for healthy, multilayered bilateral ties that are marked by neither confrontation nor accommodation.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe held talks with Xi on Dec. 23 in Beijing. It was their first get-together since they met in Osaka in June on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit. As in Osaka, the two leaders agreed to pursue a bilateral relationship that is, in Xi’s words, “suitable for a new era.”
They also reaffirmed plans for Xi to visit Japan next spring as a state guest. Xi will be the first Chinese president to be received in that status since Hu Jintao visited Tokyo in 2008.
Given the sharp ups and downs in recent years, the current calm state of bilateral ties allows constant meetings of the two countries’ leaders, which in itself is quite valuable.
As the world’s second and third largest economies, China and Japan need to pursue constructive dialogue based on a broad, long-term perspective on how they can work together to contribute to stability in the world order.
There is no doubt that the principal factor behind China’s move to soften its attitude toward Japan is its intensifying battle for global hegemony with the United States.
Another factor is China’s slowing economic growth. Beijing appears to believe it would be in its best interest to put relations with Tokyo on a friendlier footing.
Better ties with China, with its vast market, would be a boon to the Japanese economy as well. But Xi’s trip to Japan should not be all about short-term benefits or a simple celebration of fresh warmth in the bilateral relationship.
The challenge facing the two nations is how to build sturdier ties that are not shaken easily by China’s soured relations with the United States and lay a diplomatic foundation for candid talks on any pending issue.
One important question concerns how the two countries can work together to ensure that China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative to create an intercontinental network of trade infrastructure connecting dozens of countries contributes to Japan’s development aid to other Asian countries and vice versa.
Another issue centers on the steps Tokyo and Beijing should take to build mutual trust to prevent serious conflict between China’s moves to expand its presence in the region and the “Free and Open Indo-Pacific” initiative promoted by Japan and the United States.
Japan and China can also have meaningful dialogue over a free trade framework.
However, there are a slew of discordant issues they need to confront if they want to make real progress in such diplomatic efforts.
Japan must not compromise on its basic positions concerning principles related to freedom, human rights and democracy, issues on which the two countries have fundamental differences.
The Japanese government said that Abe, in his Dec. 23 meeting with Xi, emphatically expressed Japan’s concern about the situations in Hong Kong and the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
The government should not forget that if Japan waffles on these issues in the future, it will incur the distrust of people both at home and abroad.
The East China Sea should also be a topic for talks between Abe and Xi.
This year, a record 1,000 Chinese government vessels intruded into the so-called contiguous zone–a band of water extending farther from the outer edge of the territorial sea to up to 24 nautical miles within which a state can exert limited control to protect its territory–around the disputed Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea.
This hardly justifies Abe’s claim that the bilateral relationship is now “back on a normal orbit.”
The government’s decision to invite Xi as a state guest has raised some questions in Japan, where public opinion remains negative toward China. This is primarily due to the Xi administration’s authoritarian nature.
Whether the Japanese people will feel comfortable about rolling out a welcome mat to Xi depends on whether tangible and meaningful diplomatic achievements are expected from the visit.