TOKYO: Even as Washington ratchets up the pressure on China, Tokyo and Beijing are in the middle of their own “Wuhan spirit”, as both countries with a bitter history. This year, Chinese President
is expected to visit Japan twice – for the
in June and a second bilateral summit later this year. This comes after Japanese PM
made his first trip to China in late 2018, easing an eight-year chill.
After Abe’s visit to China, the two countries also agreed to work together in third countries. Like India and China, who are currently collaborating to train Afghan diplomats together, Japan and China agreed to build a connectivity project in Thailand. A planned rail project, sources said, may not go through, but a road project is on track, which will be a first.
The lowering of official tensions between the two sides is reminiscent to many Japanese officials of the
in early 2018. Both officers and strategic analysts in Tokyo agree that
and Washington’s tough line on China has been major contributing factors to China’s changed stance. A Japanese Foreign Ministry official said, “a few years ago there were no handshakes, no dialogue, only demarches.” China, he said, softened its line One of them being “he realised PM Abe is here to stay, so it was better to deal with him.”
Noted China analyst Akio Takahara of Tokyo University told TOI, Xi’s outreach to Japan also showed that he has consolidated power within the party leadership, after some push back before the 19th party congress. From 2013, US-China relations became strained, specializing in Beijing’s territorial claims on South China Sea. The US, he observed, was the first to stop referring to the US-China relations as a “great power relationship”.
Ryo Sahashi of Kanagawa University took a slightly different view. He said Abe had been wanting to repair the China relationship for a while. “He sent Toshihiro Nikai and Hiroshi Imai, two very powerful politicians to represent Japan at the BRRI summit in Beijing in May 2017.” China responded in 2018, among other things, by lifting an embargo on Japanese food exports, dialling down nationalist rhetoric on historical anniversarsaries etc.
Trump’s stand on China added enormous pressure on China, building an uncertain international environment. In addition, Beijing wanted the departure of Japanese companies and their investments to China as US ‘tech-trade measures began to bite. “At the popular level,” a government official explained, “more Chinese tourists started to come to Japan, between 7-8 million a year. All of them returned with a different popular narrative about Japan.” However, the most recent Genron survey (the only private study of popular attitudes of Japanese and Chinese people) observed that the average Japanese has a lower opinion of China than the average Chinese person about Japan. Takahara explained, “The reasons range from China’s aggressive behavior in the Senkaku Islands; a growing realization that China does not play international rules and China’s continued criticism of Japan that has a negative impact among the Japanese.”