Even though Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has been travelling widely across continents to bolster Japan’s diplomatic reach, he is sorely aware that he is not in a position to achieve any breakthrough in Tokyo’s relations with its immediate neighbouring countries China, South Korea and Russia. This is a major source of concern for policy- makers in the Japanese Government.
In a bid to achieve some semblance of normality with China in particular, the Abe administration has undertaken several attempts to revive official talks at the highest level, either directly or on the sidelines of some regional or international forums.
The forthcoming APEC (Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation) annual summit, to be held in Beijing in November, provides an opportunity for both Abe and Chinese President Xi Jingping to meet for the first time and perhaps move in the direction of working out at least a limited “detente” in their relations.
Ever since Japan nationalised the Senkaku/Daiyoyu islands and brought them under the direct control of the central government, China has refused to participate in all bilateral summit meetings with Japan. Sharp deterioration of relations since 2012 has had its impact on almost all aspects of their bilateral ties.
China’s strident maritime activities in the East China Sea provoked strong responses from Japan. A series of developments such as Abe’s new national security strategy, creation of the National Security Council, announcement of new National Defence Policy Guidelines, Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013 and US-Japan security consultations further intensified China’s suspicions. US leaders including President Barack Obama and Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel reiterated their commitment to defend the Senkaku Islands should China provoke a military showdown.
On the economic front, continuing tension took its own toll. It is reported that Japan’s investment in China during the first half of 2014 has suffered a 48 per cent decline compared to the corresponding period last year. In recent months, several Japanese companies have shown their inclination to reduce their dependence on China and turned to other countries like Thailand, Vietnam and India.
However, one cannot ignore the fact that there are more than 20,000 Japanese companies still doing business with China. To be sure, China is still the biggest trading partner of Japan, accounting for about $ 340 billion last year. Japanese business people still attach great importance to China and to the need for maintaining normal ties. Similarly, there are many in China too who show their anxiety to sustain the present level of economic interactions.
It is against this complex background that Prime Minister Abe chose to make a significant reference to the bilateral relations in his major policy speech delivered at the Japanese Diet on September 29.
He said that “Japan and China are an inseparable pair. China’s development means an opportunity for our nation.” He vowed for an “early realisation of a summit meeting to develop a stable, amicable relationship.” He believed that such a meeting was necessary to build friendly relations between Japan and China, both of which “share responsibilities for the region’s peace and prosperity.”
Abe has made these remarks with an eye on the forthcoming high level meeting of the APEC in Beijing. The Abe administration hopes to make this meeting a starting point of a dialogue with the Chinese leadership. Both Abe and President Xi Jinping have not held a formal meeting ever since they came to power, and efforts to hold such a meeting have been largely spurned by Beijing on two conditions that Japan accept that there is a territorial dispute on the Senkaku Islands and that Prime Minister Abe agree not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine again.
One should not consider Abe’s speech as something of a great surprise because behind the high-pitched mutual recrimination and political rhetoric, one could see a certain degree of concern among interested parties on both sides to seek a truce in bilateral ties. In May this year, a bi-partisan delegation of nine lawmakers led by Masahiko Komoto, Vice-President of the liberal Democratic Party (LDP), and a former foreign minister visited Beijing to explore the prospects of arranging a summit between Abe and Xi Jinping. The delegation included such well-known political leaders like Katsuya Okada from the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ), and Kazuo Kitagawa from the New Komeito Party. They met many Chinese officials and leaders and found them suspicious about Japan’s “expanding” defence policies and Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine in December 2013.
In August, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who is respected by many in China , visited Beijing with a message from Abe and met President Xi. Though the meeting was kept a secret, Fukuda later revealed how he and Xi shared a “sense of crisis” over the strained bilateral relations. Around the same time, the meeting between Japanese foreign minister Fumio Kishida and his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Myanmar carried considerable importance.
Two more significant developments have followed since then, showing considerable willingness on the part of both countries to seek improved relations. Firstly, on September 8, a delegation of 200 Japanese business executives sponsored by the Japan-China Economic Association went to China under the leadership of Fujio Cho, Honorary Chairman of the Toyota Company. Though the Association has been sending its delegations regularly for many years, this year’s mission is the biggest in size. The delegation also included such influential men like Sadayuki Sakakibara, Chief of the Keidanren (Federation of Japan Chambers of Commerce) and Takeshi Imai, chairman of Nippon steel and Sumitomo Metal Corporation. They saw indications from the Chinese side that it was eager to promote economic cooperation with Japan. The delegation met Vice-Premier Wang Yang to discuss economic issues between the two countries. The Keidanren’s chief sounded quite positive when he said that they would like to contribute to creating a favourable environment for a Abe-Xi summit.
Secondly, and perhaps more importantly, both Japan and China decided on September 24 to resume talks for initiating a bilateral maritime communication mechanism designed to forestall accidental military showdown. To be sure, the genesis of this decision goes back to June 2012 when both countries had reached a basic agreement on this question. But before they could take follow up measures, their relations got badly strained following Tokyo’s decision to nationalise the Senkaku Islands in September of the same year. When in September this year Japan wished to resume the stalled talks, China also readily agreed and negotiations were held by the concerned officials of both countries. There is little doubt that Japan believed that the resumption of talks could create an atmosphere congenial for the holding of the first Abe-Xi summit in Beijing at the time of the APEC meeting.
(Prof K.V. Kesavan is a Distinguished Fellow at Observer Research Foundation, Delhi)