Tokyo’s shift on AIIB based on economics

By Li Ruoyu Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/23 19:53:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

The first Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation convened in Beijing on May 14 and 15, gathering together 29 heads of state and government. However, although he is not a state leader, the head of the Japanese delegation Toshihiro Nikai, secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, also became the focus of media coverage of the grand convention. As a leading figure of Japan's ruling party, Nikai presented a letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Chinese President Xi Jinping and said to the media that Japan should become a member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) at an early date. It is nothing new that countries are eager to join the AIIB considering its sound performance since its establishment, but the shift from rejection to recognition in Japan's attitude deserves deliberation in view of its resistance during China's preparation of AIIB and now the ruling party leader showing enthusiasm toward the bank.

The primary factor behind this is the continuous growth of the Chinese economy which triggered a change in Japan's perception of China to some degree. Following the 1951 San Francisco Peace Conference, the US had long been one of the most important global order makers. Japan thus became the core country in East Asia due to its economic recovery and the Japan-US military alliance. Japan enjoyed this position in the international community. Nevertheless, China's GDP overtook that of Japan for the first time in 2010 and in 2013 almost reached twice the size of Japan's GDP. China is now the most powerful engine for development of the Asia-Pacific region. Therefore, Japan is no longer the core of East Asia and sees China's growth as a challenge to the old Asia-Pacific order.

As Japan and China are both Asian countries, overlaps in diplomatic policies are inevitable. For instance, China values relations with ASEAN while Japan also intends to woo them into its circle. China initiated the AIIB to promote development in Asia while Japan led the establishment of Asian Development Bank for similar reasons. Such policy overlap creates a strategic misjudgment in Japan that China's growth stands in absolute opposition to that of Japan. Therefore, it views competition with China as a zero-sum game, believing that China's gains mean damage to Japan's national interests.

As a result, Japan persists in "singing the blues" on each and every issue relevant to China such as the AIIB, whereas China has stressed during AIIB's preparation that the new bank was not a replacement, but a supplement to the existing ADB. China never seeks to develop at the cost of Japan's economic interests; however, acts undertaken by Japan have cost Japan opportunities in sharing China's growth dividend.

Nikai's visit to the Belt and Road forum and his comments on the possibility of Japan joining AIIB show that despite previous confrontation, Japan now sees China's development in a more rational way and it has accepted that the size of the Chinese economy has surpassed that of Japan irreversibly.

On one hand this change is driven by the example set by China's commitment to peaceful development, and on the other by a change in the international situation, or put it more frankly, a change in the US factor. As Financial Times reported, it was the US that lobbied big powers not to join the AIIB during its preparation. Japan believed that the US-backed TPP was enough to generate equal business opportunities to those brought by China's development. It also held that the US rebalancing its Asia-Pacific strategy would suffice in containing China politically and militarily. However, with the Trump administration now in office, all this has gone to thin air.

Japan's shifting attitude toward the AIIB shows a more pragmatic attitude toward China, for it now realizes that China's economic growth is an irreversible trend. This pragmatic posture, however, should not be interpreted as Japan abandoning its alliance with the US and switching sides to China.

Judging from the content of Abe's letter to Xi disclosed by the media, Japan made positive comments on the Belt and Road and reiterated its wishes to develop friendship and good neighborliness with China. The letter, however, did not mention politically sensitive issues between the two countries, such as historical issues and the East China Sea.

The trend of increasingly pragmatic policies by Japan toward economic and trade ties with China is irresistible, but in no way immune to fluctuations within a certain scale caused by political influences.

The author is an assistant research fellow at the Institute of Japanese Studies, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. Follow us on Twitter @GTopinion


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