Premier Li's Japan visit a sign of warming ties

By Liang Yunxiang Source:Global Times Published: 2018/5/8 20:18:40

Chinese Premier Li Keqiang kicked off his four-day visit to Japan Tuesday. Besides attending the China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit, the premier will also pay an official visit to Japan. This bears great significance for improving Sino-Japanese relations. Bilateral relations have finally come to a status of so-called "renormalization" since the China-Japan relationship worsened due to the Diaoyu Islands dispute six years ago.

The Diaoyu Islands crisis that flared up in September 2012 resulted in serious deterioration of bilateral relations. Although the two countries reached a four-point consensus after negotiations in November 2014, and leaders from China and Japan had a meeting on the sidelines of the 2014 APEC Economic Leaders' Meeting in Beijing, official visits between leaders of the two countries proved hard to realize and bilateral relations have been fraught with friction.

However, both Chinese and Japanese leaders have made efforts to improve bilateral ties. The Japanese government has started to change its former wait-and-see attitude toward China's Belt and Road initiative and expressed willingness to cooperate in some programs instead, which was positively responded to by the Chinese government.

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

In mid-April, the Chinese foreign minister visited Japan, the last such visit dating back to nine years ago. During the visit, bilateral high-level economic dialogue was resumed and some consensus was reached.

It is on such a premise that Premier Li's visit was made possible. The Japan visit presages a restoration of the former unofficial tradition of exchanging visits between the two countries' leaders when bilateral relations were normal.

Li's visit indicates that there will finally be some relatively stable high-level interaction between the two countries following prolonged tensions. It also means that we might be able to put an end to the former unstable condition of bilateral relations.

In fact, after years of setbacks and conflicts, neither China nor Japan has obtained any benefits. The premier's visit will enhance security and mutual trust and deepen economic cooperation between the two countries. For instance, the air and maritime contact mechanism that the two countries are negotiating is likely to be initiated. The visit will also help enhance friendly sentiments between the Chinese and the Japanese people.

Premier Li is expected to discuss with Japanese leaders regional issues such as North Korea and regional cooperation in East Asia. It would absolutely be great news for peace and stability of the whole region if China and Japan could reach a basic consensus over such issues.

Bilateral relations are unlikely to improve comprehensively because of this visit alone. After the Cold War, some structural conflicts gradually emerged in China-Japan relations. The security dilemma of the two countries and changes in the balance of power between them have seriously constrained their relations.

China-Japan relations are still vulnerable. The current détente only shows at most that the two countries are willing to improve relations.

China and Japan need each other. China is in the midst of trade conflicts with its biggest trading partner - the US - and it has frictions with the US over North Korea, Taiwan and the South China Sea. China certainly does not hope to have strained relations with Japan as well. Likewise, facing a China that has overtaken it in economics, Japan also needs to keep relatively close and stable economic relations with China in order to develop its own economy sustainably.

There are both structural conflicts and common interests. As long as no crisis breaks out in East Asia, the two countries are likely to build a relationship of stable cooperation through joint efforts. However, when a crisis breaks out, there might still be setbacks or even conflicts in bilateral relations. We should also notice that Sino-Japanese relations are gradually maturing. For some time in the future, the relationship between China and Japan will be one of neither enemies nor friends where cooperation and conflicts coexist.

The author is a professor at the School of International Studies, Peking University.


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