Abe’s outreach doesn’t change policy on China

By Li Ruoyu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/1/25 20:38:39

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In his policy speech to Parliament in this year's regular legislative session on Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said that Japan and China bear great responsibility for regional peace and prosperity, and hence Tokyo "will steadily improve our friendship from a comprehensive standpoint." Some media outlets have taken the conciliatory tone of the address as a signal that Japan is reaching out to China.

China-Japan relations have been on a bumpy road since Abe took office. But last year he said that Tokyo would reflect on its negative approach to China's Belt and Road initiative. And now he wants to further improve ties. It seems the Japanese prime minister's attitude toward his neighbor is changing fast. But if one takes a close look at the full text of his speech, one will find that Abe is far from reversing Japan's policy toward China.

Abe talked about ties with China in the part about his globe-trotting diplomacy, which, together with the "arc of freedom and prosperity," used to be taken as Tokyo's strategy to contain Beijing. But now Abe has expanded this policy by including China-Japan relations, which to some extent indicates that Tokyo has adjusted its policy toward Beijing, yet the general outlook remains unchanged.

In the part about Japan-US alliance, Abe took a clear-cut stance by emphasizing that the alliance was and would continue to be the basis for Japan's diplomatic and national security policy. In other words, US-Japan relations are vital, while other ties, including those with China, are ancillary.

Though political ties are strained, Sino-Japanese economic cooperation remains remarkable. In his policy speech, Abe also mentioned the strategy of making Japan a tourism-based country, in which China has played a significant role. According to Japan Tourism Agency, from January to September last year, Chinese tourists to Japan outnumber visitors from any other country. Their visits are expanding to include more tourism hotspots beyond traditional destinations like Tokyo and Osaka. This has played a positive role in Japanese government's efforts to develop the local economy.
The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games is another challenge for Japan in the coming two years, while the 2008 Beijing Olympics was a universally acknowledged success from which Japan can learn.

Improving Sino-Japanese relations will undoubtedly help Abe fulfill his promises that he made to the public in his policy speech, which is an important reason why he has begun making overtures to China.

But other parts of his speech may easily trigger skepticism among neighboring countries including China, like the plan to buy Aegis Ashore missile defense systems from the US and promote amendment of the National Defense Program Guidelines.

Besides, Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono claimed that Japan would not accept any attempt to change the status quo in the East China Sea. This makes Japan contradict itself.

Despite the strained relations with China since Abe came to power, there is no evidence that he is trying to sabotage bilateral ties. Abe is pursuing conservative policies like changing Japan's pacifist constitution and expanding military power, which drives him to view ties with China as a zero-sum game. That is to say, he believes that the rise of China will definitely hinder the development of Japan. It is for this reason that many of his policies seem to target China. To improve ties in order to boost the Japanese economy is the real goal of the Abe administration, yet moves like his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine undermine bilateral relations.

On the whole, it shows contradictions in Abe's governing philosophy. Policy adjustment is constrained by contradictions in the way he governs. Therefore, reconciling these contradictions should be the real starting point of Abe's diplomacy. In this sense, there would hardly be any fundamental change in Abe administration's policy toward China.

The author is an associate professor at the School of History and Culture, Sichuan University. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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