Geopolitics on the rocks

Michael Cucek

A Sino-Japanese Springtime?

East Asia

Sino-Japanese relations are on the upswing. By favoring people-to-people exchanges and being less emphatic, Tokyo and Beijing are both unveiling a new approach to the bilateral relationship. Why no summit between Abe and Xi wouldn’t be a failure.

On April 21 Japan’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs announced a change in Japan’s visa policies. Chinese visitors, if they can prove sufficient financial means, will be able to secure multi-year, multiple entry visas to indulge in tourism, visit relatives or even engage in business -- with few restrictions and without the intervention of travel agencies. The press release projected that the easings of restrictions “are expected to further advance people-to-people exchanges between Japan and China.”

Not a press release to send pulses racing around the world.

However, the release is an encouraging indicator of a major contrarian trend. Sino-Japanese relations are on the upswing. This shift in geopolitics is heavy with potential, as a lot of lost goodwill need to be regained.

The mainstream view of relations between the two countries as being poor and not improving is supported by numerous measures. In terms of security affairs the number of sorties flown by Japanese fighters to meet Chinese aircraft or the number of times Japan’s Coast Guard reports intrusions by Chinese vessels into territorial waters of Japan surrounding the Senkaku (in Chinese Diao Yu Tai) Islands either are growing or at a high pitch. Direct investment by Japanese corporations has been on a four year swoon and is now at levels below even the bad years of the Global Financial Crisis. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping, both in their fifth year in office, have never had a formal summit meeting. The pair have held bilateral talks only four times -- in brief side meetings arranged on the sidelines of global multilateral gatherings. “Brief” is the operative word: the last meeting, held at the APEC summit in Lima, Peru lasted 10 minutes.

The chill at the top of the bilateral relationship is a mirror image of negative attitudes citizens in both countries have of the other. The Genron NPO Japan China opinion poll finds that 92% of Japanese have a bad impression of China and 77% of Chinese have a bad impression of Japan. When asked whether they think the relationship between the two countries is doing poorly, 72% of Japan and 78% of Chinese think the relationship is poor or very poor. The Pew Attitudes Surveys in their latest polling (2016) found 81% of Chinese with negative views of Japan and 86% of Japanese with negative views of China.

As bad as these figures are, there are grounds for optimism. First, the above numbers are not the worst ever recorded. The peaks of mistrust and dislike were in 2013 and 2014, during the first two years in power of Abe and Xi, when the two leaders did not meet each other at all. Since 2013, the percentage of Chinese having negative impressions or feelings about Japan has indeed fallen from 93% to 77% in the Genron NPO poll and from 90% to 81% in the Pew survey. The decline in Japanese negativity toward China since 2014 has been less. However, there is significant reason for confidence in the Japanese negative numbers falling: the Genron poll found only 36% of Japanese had a bad impression of China as recently as 2006.

Of greater significance than changes polling numbers are shifts in the movement of persons. The numbers on Japanese traveling to or residing in China are moribund, languishing largely on worries of an economic slowdown in China, personal security and pollution. Flows from China to Japan, however, are very positive. In 2006 Japan hosted around 812,000 Chinese visitors; in 2016 it recorded 6.3 million, with the number of Chinese visitors increasing over 27% from 2015 to 2016. In terms of residents, the numbers of Chinese living in Japan is now 695,522 (Ministry of Justice, December 2016). Chinese are by far the most numerous of Japan’s foreign residents. While number of Chinese living in Japan did decline slightly from 2010 to 2013, the number of Chinese newly moving to Japan has fluctuated between 40,000 to 60,000 immigrants for the past two decades. For a sense of the potential impact of that sustained flow from China, the total number of Americans living in Japan -- not counting military personnel assigned to U.S. Forces Japan and their dependents -- is 56,000 (2016 figure).

While the Immigration Bureau figures are showing sustained Chinese interest in Japan irrespective of background, increasing interest in China is being manifested in Japan through action by business associations and civil society groups. A shifting of gears is visible. The proximate cause is the 45th anniversary next year of the establishment of normalized relations between the two countries. Anniversaries are of great, even absurd importance in East Asian diplomacy, the cause for numerous celebrations, conferences and visits. The 40th anniversary of normalization was to be commemorated with particular pomp. However, the Japanese government’s reluctant decision in September 2012 to purchase three of the Senkaku Islands it did not already own prompted China to cancel most of the 40th anniversary commemorative events. The sense in the business and academic communities is that the 45th anniversary (which is also the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Friendship between China and Japan) offers a hope for renewed links between the two countries. The Nippon Keidanren (Japan Business Federation), which has remained a strong supporter of intense Sino-Japanese dialogue, is gearing up for major action, possibly goaded on by sudden instability in the U.S.-Japan economic relationship.

Political party executives will be playing major roles drumming up support for and increasing the visibility of 45th anniversary events. Toshihiro Nikai, the Secretary-General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, will likely be the crucial player. The Beijing government sees him as a reliable friend and go-between. He pays frequent visits to China to meet with Chinese leaders, often conveying private messages from Prime Minister Abe. Former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda and former Tax Committee chair Takeshi Noda will play similar roles, though more as cheerleaders for Japanese business involvement in a warming of frozen relations and handholders of Chinese visitors. Former PM Fukuda, who has been in largely in eclipse since the return to the premiership of Shinzo Abe, his former rival inside the Seiwakai Faction, is suddenly everywhere (his father Takeo Fukuda is remembered for the Fukuda Doctrine putting political reconciliation with Asian countries on a par with economic integration). The intercessions of Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi may also play a part. However, recent tensions between the LDP and the national leadership of Komeito over the passage of the casino legalization act and the Tokyo Komeito’s alliance with Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike against the LDP’s Tokyo branch may reduce the attractiveness the Komeito leadership as China handlers.

News media declarations on the success or failure of the efforts of politicians, business and civil society will hinge on whether or not they produce a first bilateral summit for Abe and Xi. The outlook for such a summit is far better than in any time the past four years. Almost the entire 10 minutes of the meeting of the two leaders in Lima was occupied by mutual declarations of a need to improve the bilateral relationship and properly commemorate the anniversaries in relations.

There are plenty of reasons for optimism. Both Abe and Xi have consolidated power, eliminating the worry about how rivals within their respective power frameworks might portray an about-face on a bilateral summit. Abe also seems to be relying less on his combative advisors like Canon Institute for Global Studies’ Kunihiko Miyake, who in the first years of the current Abe Cabinet seemed almost a spokesman for the Abe government, and more on the advocates of a softer, cooperative approach like Akio Takahara of Tokyo University. The Chinese side, for its part, seems to have abandoned hope of somehow extorting further apologies from Abe on history issues, especially after his extremely conciliatory (for him at least) Statement on the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Moves by officials below Cabinet level, such as the April 4 meeting between Vice Minister of Foreign Affairs Takeo Akiba and Assistant Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, indicate a wish on both sides for a summit at the very latest in the first half of 2018.

The media-driven “a summit means success with China and no summit means failure” narrative should also be taken with a grain of salt. A “summit or nothing” attitude is not present in the Abe Administration. Under National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi’s leadership the foreign policy of Japan has purposefully deemphasized the big three relationships with the US, with China and with South Korea. Instead of becoming bogged down in the emotional complications of the big three, Japan’s foreign policy has been taking “A Panoramic Perspective of the World Map” -- an awkward, even amusing turn of phrase masking determined effort to cultivate previously ignored or underdeveloped relationships. The lack of a bilateral Abe-Xi summit up until now has not been the mark of the failure of Japan’s foreign policy: it has been a feature of it.

Japan has a new approach to China and China to Japan. Both remain well hidden; their eventual success is not guaranteed. A stubborn no-concessions-for-a-summit stance has been a hindrance – but pigheadedness also has kept nationalist forces and still enervated publics in support of Abe and Xi as they lead their countries through wrenching changes in governance. The rapprochement being favored is thus an unfamiliar one, rejecting paternalistic leaders cutting of deals in attention-grabbing summit meetings. Instead we see a Japan in favor of organic growth through, as the April 21 visa announcement hopes, of people-to-people exchanges.