On his trip to Da Nang in central Vietnam, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping on the evening of November 11th, with both leaders vowing to further improve relations between their countries. The Prime Minister called for China to play a greater role in efforts to exert maximum pressure on North Korea, as the latter has continued its nuclear and intercontinental ballistic missile development programs.
Abe had just launched his fourth administration following a landslide victory in the House of Representatives election. Similarly, President Xi Jinping had just been confirmed at the Communist Party Convention in October to begin his second term. The sixth meeting between the two leaders, who both recently secured their respective political bases, began with smiles. Departing from his strategy to date, Xi has changed track to employ “smiling tactics” with respect to Japan. One must wonder why, however.
Xi said, “This meeting marks a new start for Japan-China relations.”
Abe replied, “I agree completely.”
The mood continued, with the approximately 50-minute long meeting ending on the same congenial note. The often tenuous Japan-China relationship was, perhaps, showing prospects for improvement.
According to numerous sources within the government, Japan put forward the request for talks with Xi, but made no specific request with respect to the Premier of China, Li Keqiang. It was the Chinese who said, “We would like to have a meeting between Prime Minister Abe and Premier Li at the ASEAN summit in Manila.”
Although 2018 marks the 40th anniversary of the Sino-Japanese Peace and Friendship Treaty, a rapid change of track toward diplomatic talks presents a risk for the Xi administration, which has heretofore focused solely on “anti-Japan” and “anti-corruption” agendas.
Despite this, a major factor in the shift toward a smiling strategy is the strengthening of Japan-US relations brought about, in part, by the arrival of President Donald Trump. For five years, the policy of “diplomacy that takes a panoramic perspective of the world map” has proven successful, with Indo-Pacific countries drawing together to contain China. The Chinese economy has also begun to fluctuate.
These are all major factors that prompted Xi to move towards repairing Japan-China relations. However, in fact, there is yet another reason: to block Japan’s constitutional revision.
Since May, when Abe announced his administration’s goal of revising Japan’s Constitution by 2020, China has repeatedly expressed its concerns regarding the revision via the Chinese Ambassador to Japan, Cheng Yonghua. Despite Japan’s explanation that any proposed change would simply enable Japan to defend itself, the Chinese have not attempted to veil their suspicions, asking, “Are you sure Japan is not just taking advantage of the North Korean situation to revise the Constitution?”
Although there is no need to be drawn to the issue of interference in domestic affairs, improving relations with China here is unavoidable, considering the North Korean situation. After all, cooperation from China, which accounts for 90% of North Korea’s trade volume, is essential in the successful implementation of economic sanctions against Pyongyang. Considering a distinct possibility of the situation deteriorating further, continued discussion amongst said countries’ leaders will be crucial.
However, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands (Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture) is a lingering issue that remains unresolved between Japan and China. Thus, relations will not be improved merely by smiling. Abe was quick to remind Xi of this fact, saying, “Without stability in the East China Sea, there will be no real improvement in Japan-China relations.
Makiko Takita is a staff writer of the Sankei Shimbun Political news department. She is contributing this report from Da Nang, Vietnam.