By Kaiya Michitaka
Japan and China will celebrate the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations on Sept. 29. How should Japan deal with China, whose economic and military prominence has heightened and has become increasingly coercive? This article will discuss the current state of Japan-China relations.
On August 17, Akiba Takeo, secretary-general of the National Security Secretariat, made an unpublicized visit to a resort in Tianjin, China, for talks with Yang Jiechi, China’s top diplomat and a member of the Chinese Communist Party Politburo. The seven-hour talks were a mixture of restraint and persuasion and probing the other’s intentions, symbolizing the complexity of Japan-China relations.
The meeting was called by the Chinese side. Coffee and cookies were served at the meeting, which began around 4 p.m. The two also dined together.
The discussion became heated when it touched on China’s military drills that took place two weeks prior to the event.
In response to Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan in early August 2022, China fired ballistic missiles into waters around Taiwan in what it called an important military exercise. Five of the missiles landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone (EEZ). There was a growing sense of crisis throughout Japan that “a Taiwan contingency is a contingency for Japan.”
When Akiba criticized China, saying that “It is extremely dangerous [to conduct exercises] in waters where Okinawan fishermen are active,” Yang explained that “the exercises were directed against the U.S. and Taiwan, not Japan.” Yang also said, “We would like [Japan] to stay out of these matters.” A senior foreign ministry official said that Yang “may have intended to drive a wedge between Japan, the U.S., and Taiwan, which are united against China.”
Yang emphasized that “Taiwan is inalienable territory of China. The Taiwan issue is related to the political foundation and faith of China-Japan relations.”
Taiwan has always been an issue in Japan-China relations. Taiwan was a focal point in 1972 when the Japan-China Joint Communique for the establishment of diplomatic relations was formulated. The statement said that Japan “fully understands and respects” China’s position that Taiwan is “an inalienable part of China’s territory.”
Yang praised former Prime Minister Abe Shinzo for “contributing” to Japan-China relations, and expressed interest in Taiwan’s response to Abe’s state funeral. This is because China cannot allow Taiwanese officials to attend and be treated in the same manner as representatives of other countries. China officially notified Japan on Sept. 22 that Wan Gang, Vice Chairperson of the People’s Political Consultative Conference, would attend the state funeral, after Taiwan announced that it would dispatch non-high-ranking officials.
A Japanese official commented that the meeting between Akiba and Yang was “constructive, as they earnestly said what needed to be said.” Although the meeting took place just after the Japan-China foreign ministers meeting was canceled in the aftermath of Speaker Pelosi’s Taiwan visit, it laid the ground for improving Japan-China relations, which had become tense.
The talks next turned to whether a meeting between Prime Minister Kishida Fumio and Xi Jinping will be realized. Kishida has repeatedly said that “we will insist on matters we should insist on, and cooperate on common issues” and that Japan is “open to dialogue.”
China has responded in kind. When Kishida tested positive for COVID-19 in late August, Xi sent a telegram expressing sympathy. Kishida sent a message of sympathy to victims of the earthquake in Sichuan Province on Sept. 6.
Although China is enhancing its hegemonic actions around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture, it wants to seek rapprochement with Japan in other areas. Economic growth is essential for stable domestic governance. As European countries and the U.S. grow wary of China, China wants to prevent Japanese companies from leaving the country. Japan also wants to avoid a decisive confrontation with China.
Xi will start his third term after the Communist Party Congress in October 2022. The Group of 20 (G20) summit in November will be a good opportunity for the leaders of Japan and China to meet face-to-face. Creating an environment for such a meeting may not be easy, as a Japan-China foreign ministers meeting did not take place at the UN General Assembly in New York.
Former Prime Minister Ohira Masayoshi, who realized the negotiations to normalize diplomatic relations between Japan and China 50 years ago, revived the Kochikai (currently the Kishida faction). China, which had approached Japan and the U.S. for economic and technical assistance, has now become the world’s second largest economy and is expanding its military powers. Kishida, the bearer of his faction’s tradition, faces the challenge of balancing dialogue and deterrence.