Walking the tightrope between China and U.S.

In late June, Chinese President Xi Jinping will attend the G20 summit in the Japanese city of Osaka. This may sound par for the course unless contextualised by the fact that it will be the first time a Chinese President has stepped on Japanese soil since 2010. The lack of high-level visits between the world’s second- and third-largest economies is testament to just how strained bilateral relations between them have been, despite their deeply intertwined nature. According to the Japan External Trade Organisation, China-Japan trade stands at about $350 billion.

Historical baggage and a territorial dispute are at the heart of their frosty ties. But a slow melt has been in evidence over the last year. In April 2018, a high-level economic dialogue between Beijing and Tokyo resumed after a hiatus of eight years, followed by a visit to Japan by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. In October, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe paid an official visit to Beijing, leading some analysts to conclude that the Sino-Japanese ‘reset’ had real substance.

However, others remain scecal. Shin Kawajima, a China scholar at the University of Tokyo, says the relationship may have “moved from negative to zero,” but has much ground to cover before it can accurately be described as “positive”.

The island dispute

The main sticking point remains the conflicting claims of sovereignty over a chain of islands, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China. Until 2008, in keeping with the “hiding strength and biding time” principle of China’s foreign policy in vogue at the time, the dispute remained on the back-burner. However, in December that year, two Chinese patrol vessels entered the waters around the islands, beginning a spiralling of relations that worsened when a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese Coast Guard ship in 2010. Eventually, in 2012, Japan nationalised the Senkaku islands. Bilateral ties reached their nadir and Chinese vessels have made regular forays into the area ever since.

Unexpectedly, U.S. President Donald Trump’s tariff war with China is helping to defuse this tense situation. The trade impasse is causing awareness in Beijing of the dangers of taking on too many adversaries at once, encouraging it to play nice with its historical rival. Japan has its own uncertainties regarding its trade and security relationship with the U.S., including the Trump administration’s withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership and hiccups in bilateral trade negotiations. The result is that Tokyo is also keen on keeping ties with Beijing on an even keel, at least until it can be more sure of U.S. intentions. Yet, as Mr. Kawajima points out, short-term expediency aside, China and Japan continue to have starkly different long-term goals. Tokyo wants a return to the pre-2008 status on the Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, while Beijing wants to normalise the current state of affairs, wherein Chinese vessels regularly enter the waters around the islands.

Moreover, Mr. Xi’s visit to Japan for the G20 will not be a bilateral state visit, which reduces its importance. Leaders of the two countries have regularly met on the sidelines of multilateral events since 2014.

And Mr. Trump is playing a double-edged role in shaping the contours of Sino-Japan ties. He is driving them closer with his ‘America First’ and ‘tough-on-trade’ measures, while simultaneously forcing Tokyo to choose between Beijing and Washington on some issues. Japan has thus aligned itself with Mr. Trump’s call for a boycott of Chinese telecom major, Huawei, even though it was till recently seen as the partner of choice for Japan’s 5G roll-out.

Beijing is also wary of Tokyo’s new mid-term defence plans, which include the conversion of two Izumo-class helicopter carriers into aircraft carriers and the purchase of 105 U.S.-made F-35 stealth warplanes. And yet, earlier this year, it invited Japan to the celebrations of its Navy’s 70th anniversary, making it the first time in over seven years that a Japanese warship visited Chinese shores.

Mr. Kawajima concludes that the coming year will see Tokyo having to walk a tightrope between its long-standing security alliance with the U.S. and its important economic relations with China. Regardless of how talks between Mr. Xi and Mr. Abe proceed on the sidelines of the G20, Tokyo’s leadership will need to brush up its acrobatic skills.

(Pallavi Aiyar is an author and journalist based in Tokyo.