The heralded meeting last week between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe was touted by both leaders as opening a new era in Sino–Japanese relations. Asia’s two most powerful nations have been locked in a cold war for nearly a decade, largely over the contested Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, but more broadly because of Japan’s discomfiture with China’s rise and Beijing’s concern over Tokyo’s military modernization.
Chinese attempts to intimidate Japan into giving up the Senkakus have failed, despite repeated incursions into waters around the islands by Chinese fishermen, maritime patrol vessels, and navy ships. Chinese bombers have also flown near Japanese airspace in record numbers in the past several years, occasioning hundreds of scrambles by Japan’s Air Self-Defense Forces. In 2010, Beijing instituted a temporary ban on the export to Japan of rare-earth minerals, which are vital to advanced industrial production. In 2012, anti-Japanese demonstrations in cities across China turned into riots that attacked Japanese businesses. When Abe last met Xi, in 2014, the two could barely look at each other.
The atmosphere could hardly have been different at the red-carpet welcome in Beijing that Abe received. Ostensibly celebrating the 40th anniversary of the Sino–Japanese Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Abe and Xi warmly toasted each other. Five hundred Japanese business leaders accompanied Abe, and the two sides signed trade agreements worth $18 billion. Topping it all off, the Japanese flag flew along Beijing’s main thoroughfare, a sight normally as rare as the smiles between the two leaders, who declared that competition between the two was over, and that they were moving in a “new historic direction.”
While any lessening of tensions between Asia’s leading countries is to be welcomed, optimists are likely to be disappointed. Far from welcoming Japan as an equal partner, Xi is more likely playing his own version of the “China card,” this time using Japan as a way to balance the United States.
Belying his warm words, Xi has been among the most stridently anti-Japanese leaders ever in China, not only pressuring Japan over the Senkakus but making the 1945 defeat of Japan and remembrance of the Nanjing Massacre national holidays. Chinese television is filled every night with World War II dramas portraying Japanese depredations, and in 2014 Xi visited the Museum of the War of Chinese People’s Resistance Against Japanese Aggression.
The reason for Xi’s apparent turnabout is clear enough: Relations with Washington are rapidly getting worse, and President Donald Trump is not backing down from either his trade war or his increase in U.S. military operations in maritime areas claimed by China. Beijing’s bluff and bluster has failed, and Xi likely is realizing that he is in for a long war of attrition with Washington.
Thus, the Japan card. Beijing needs to remain an attractive trade partner, especially given Abe’s success in pushing through the Trans-Pacific Partnership after Trump’s withdrawal and in signing a new free-trade pact with the European Union. Perhaps Xi believes that Tokyo will be enticed to join Beijing’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, leaving only America out in the cold. Promising to ease the pressure over the Senkakus is an easy concession by Xi, given that Tokyo remains committed to defending them. Perhaps, if relations appear to warm enough, Beijing will try to persuade Tokyo to slow down its increases in defense spending.
If the Japan card works for Beijing, what’s in it for Tokyo? As China represents the greatest long-term threat to Japan’s security, Abe is eager for any reprieve in the pressure Xi has brought to bear since taking office, even though he has been uncommonly successful in reaching out to other Asian leaders and positioning himself as an alternative to dealing with the often overbearing Chinese. The summit with Xi will bolster his diplomatic credibility while also potentially opening up Chinese markets that could help keep his economic plans on track. Yet Abe undoubtedly harbors no illusions as to why Xi is reaching out at this particular time.
In reality, there are all too few areas of common interest between Japan and China. The poisonous history between the two fuels nationalism in both countries, but especially in China. Their struggle for predominance in Asia remains a zero-sum game, as Japan under Mr. Abe has assiduously deepened its relations with India, in Southeast Asia, and with Australia, all due to fears of China’s growing military ambitions and its expansive Belt and Road Initiative. For his part, Xi has shown no inclination to back down from China’s assertive regional policies.
It would indeed be historic if the two were honestly groping towards cooperation rather than competition and antagonism. Yet as soon Xi needs a convenient scapegoat to deflect attention from China’s slowing economy, or if he somehow patches up relations with Washington, Japan is likely to become once again Public Enemy No. 1, and the Japan card will have turned out to be a joker.