Abe faces tight rope walk in repairing China ties

By Zhang Yun Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/16 21:28:40

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On October 12, the governments of China and Japan announced that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was scheduled to pay an official visit to China from October 25 to 27. The last Japanese Prime Minister's official visit to China came at the end of 2011. This visit would be the first formal one by a Japanese prime minister in seven years, which shows the increasing momentum of rapprochement between the two Asian giants.

On the Japanese side, the incentives for improving bilateral relations emanate both from domestic and external contexts. Abe has shown his tremendous skills of solidifying internal political base by his successful re-election as the president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) for the third time. Under his leadership, the LDP has won three Lower House elections and two Upper House elections. He will continue his premiership until 2021, which makes his tenure surpass his five predecessors combined.

There is no threat from an internal rival in sight. The only competing candidate in the LDP presidential election, Shigeru Ishiba, has been largely marginalized. Another promising post-Abe politician, former foreign minister Fumio Kishida chose to wait for an internal succession rather than publicly challenging Abe. Shinjiro Koizumi, an ambitious politician and son of the former charismatic prime minister Junichiro Koizumi, is still young and willing to be the leader of the next generation.

Outside of the LDP, Japanese opposition parties remain divided and irrelevant. The recent poll by Nikkei shows that the support rate of all opposition parties is under 10 percent in stark contrast with LDP's 48 percent. It is true that Abe was returned to premiership for the second time in 2012 partly by advocating an assertive policy toward China.

However, currently the necessity of being tough with China is dwindling. He might strengthen the substantial and lasting success of Abenomics as his political legacy in his last years in office, in which the deepening of Sino-Japanese economic relations is important. Japan is also facing pressure from Washington. The weakening of the US international standing and currents against globalization also make Japan feel that it is necessary to move closer to China.

All these are welcoming signs, but caution is necessary. Despite the changing attitude of the Japanese government, there are two major factors that could queer the pitch for improving Sino-Japanese relations.

First is the uncertainty about how the US would react to a rapid thaw between Japan and China. The Trump administration and the US want to take on China over issues ranging from trade war to intellectual property rights protection and from South China Sea to the Belt and Road initiative. As its most important ally, the US expects Japan to be consistent in its approach toward China. If Japan is showing any signs of outriding the US-Japan alliance with its approach to Beijing, it needs to be prepared for the possible consequences. Prime Minister Abe has said that he places the US-Japan alliance as the corner stone of his cabinet, and this principle has been enshrined in a previous national security document. Japan is likely to balance its relations with the US in calculating how far it can go in joining hands with China. In the past few months, Abe has repeatedly assured President Trump of his commitment toward the alliance. Japan is also enhancing relations with US allies, like EU and Australia, for expanding the quasi-alliance network. Meanwhile, relations with ASEAN countries have been enhanced with the Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting and the Self Defense Force ships' visits to ASEAN member states.

The second uncertainty is the largely unfavorable Japanese public opinion on China. On the day of announcement of Abe's China visit, an opinion  survey between Japan and China published by Genron NPO showed about 42 percent of Chinese respondents had a positive image of Japan. However, 86 percent of the Japanese public said that they had negative perceptions of China. In this sense, the social foundation of bilateral ties remains fragile.

China and Japan are the two most important nations in East Asia and good bilateral relations are significant for regional peace and prosperity. This golden chance of improving Sino-Japanese relations should not be missed. At the same time, it is also important to keep a low profile and proceed cautiously instead of hyping up the issue.

The author is associate professor of National Niigata University Japan and senior fellow, Institute of Advanced Area Studies and Global Governance, Beijing Foreign Studies University, China. opinion@globaltimes.com.cn

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