Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s visit to Tokyo last month came against the backdrop of the elections in the U.S. Meanwhile, tensions have been running high between China and Japan over a host of issues, but this recent move from Beijing can be seen as a reach-out from the Chinese side to the Suga Administration in Japan before the Biden Administration takes over in the US.
PM Suga took office earlier in September this year, after the former Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, stepped down due to health reasons.
So, why was this trip important?
First, Beijing is attempting to coax Tokyo into not getting too cosy with the new administration of President-elect Joe Biden. These few months represent an opportunity for Beijing, now that it is a given that a new administration will take over in the U.S. from the earlier one led by President Donald Trump.
Second, the last few months have seen frenetic diplomatic activity among the major actors in the Indo-Pacific like Japan, India, the U.S. and Australia. This has been seen in initiatives like the Quad, and in Australia’s inclusion in what had earlier been the India-Japan-U.S. Malabar naval exercises.
Third, this year has seen China’s relations with countries like India and Australia deteriorate to a new low. There have been clashes between India and China on the border which have led to casualties on both sides.
That is why Beijing would like to “manage” its ties with Japan, especially considering the squeeze imposed on it by the U.S. under the Trump Administration.
Thorny Path Ahead
However, in what can clearly be construed as a sign of the problematic ties between the two countries, the visiting Chinese foreign minister took up the issue of Chinese claims over the Senkakus during his press conference with Japanese Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi. Wang Yi also made the preposterous suggestion that fishing boats from both the countries should not be allowed near the Senkakus and only government boats be allowed, which Tokyo wisely did not accept.
There still remain a litany of issues that need to be addressed in the Japan-China bilateral equation.
First, the territorial issue is of course the biggest challenge. China’s claims over the Japanese-held Senkaku islands have led to a lot of tension in the ties. Earlier, in July this year, Chinese ships were spotted near the Senkakus for 100 straight days, creating a new record since private property on the islands was nationalized in 2012.
Second, is the issue of Japan’s alliance with the U.S. This issue has become very complicated for Japan under the Trump Presidency because of the tough stance taken by his administration towards China.
In the meantime, Japan hosted the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the “Quad”) foreign ministers’ conference, earlier in October this year. Earlier, Wang Yi, during his tour of Southeast Asia in October this year had referred to the Quad as an “Indo-Pacific NATO”. In addition, during the visit of the Australian PM Scott Morrison to Japan last month, the two countries had reached a broad agreement on a military pact between the two countries.
Third, looking at the economic aspect of the ties, China is Japan’s biggest trade partner. Japan also hosts a huge number of Chinese tourists. Japan and China are also members of the recently concluded RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership). The RCEP does not include the U.S., and in the aftermath of the U.S. walking away from the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership), Japan had taken the lead in chaperoning the CPTPP (The Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership).
What to Expect?
Of course, it will be too early to expect a sudden turnaround in Sino-Japanese ties. The relationship has gone through a rough phase from early this year. Chinese President Xi Jinping was supposed to visit Japan in the spring, but the visit was postponed in the light of the coronavirus pandemic.
In addition, Sino-Japanese ties will depend to a great extent on what kind of a stance the Biden Administration takes towards Beijing as Tokyo is a close American ally. That said, it will be interesting to watch the shape of Sino-Japanese ties in the times ahead. Tokyo needs Beijing’s help when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang and that would certainly be weighing on its mind.
During this trip, Wang Yi also visited Seoul. This means that ahead of the inauguration of the Biden government, Beijing is hedging its bets.
As seen in the Chinese diplomat Zhao Lijian’s fake tweet about Australian soldiers in Afghanistan "murdering” children, it seems that Beijing will not stop at anything as it carries on its so-called “wolf warrior diplomacy”.
It also highlights the difficult choices that Tokyo will have to make in the times ahead. However, it would be naïve of Tokyo to take Beijing at face value, especially given its past record.
Author: Rupakjyoti Borah
Dr Rupakjyoti Borah is a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, Tokyo. His forthcoming book is The Strategic Relations between India, the United States and Japan in the Indo-Pacific: When Three is Not a Crowd. He has also authored two other books. He has also been a Visiting Fellow at the University of Cambridge, the Japan Institute of International Affairs (JIIA), Japan and the Australian National University. The views expressed here are personal. Twitter @rupakj