Tokyo strategy 2018 not meant to counter China’s Belt and Road initiative

By Li Ruoyu Source:Global Times Published: 2018/10/18 19:23:40

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, together with leaders of Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, hosted the 10th Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting in the State Guest House in Tokyo on October 9. The meeting adopted an agreement - "Tokyo Strategy 2018 for Mekong-Japan Cooperation" to promote cooperation between Japan and countries from the Mekong region.

Some Japanese media outlets believe that the meeting is aimed at countering China's Belt and Road initiative (BRI), and some analysts think the meeting signals the beginning of a new round of competition between China and Japan over Mekong. Such opinion is staid mind-set that regards relations between the two neighbors as a zero-sum game, concluding that one's development will damage the other's interest. But as Chinese President Xi Jinping once said, "The Pacific Ocean is big enough to accommodate both China and the US". As the biggest continent in terms of both size and population, Asia can also accommodate both China and Japan. There is still room for economic cooperation for these two beneficiaries of globalization, especially when US President Donald Trump is advocating  protectionism.

The Tokyo Strategy 2018 shows that Japan's cooperation with the Mekong countries is centered around infrastructure development, human resource development and climate change, and it is dependent on Japan's official development assistance (ODA). In fact, ASEAN has been the focus of ODA for a long time. The first Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting was held in 2009 and the participating countries have been issuing the Tokyo Strategy every three years, including The Tokyo Strategy 2012 and the Tokyo Strategy 2015. That is to say, the establishment of the Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting came before China's BRI. When establishing the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and proposing the BRI, China had reiterated that its intention is not to overturn the existing international economic system, but make a contribution to the world economy.

For China, the Japan-promoted Mekong-Japan Summit Meeting does not clash with China's BRI. Although products from China and Japan may compete in the relevant countries' markets, such competition is normal in terms of economy, and does not indicate a fundamental contradiction between national interests. From the perspective of Thailand, Myanmar, Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, they probably don't think their economic cooperation with other countries is strongly exclusive.

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Lu Kang once said, "We are happy to see neighboring countries develop normal bilateral relations". Different from China's generosity and broad-mindedness, some Japanese media outlets emphasized Japan's potential conflict of interest with China because of Japan's political standpoint on the issue. The question is: Is the Tokyo Strategy 2018 pure economic cooperation or a strategy with specific political purpose?

As the text of the Tokyo Strategy 2018 shows, Japan seems to have some ulterior motive in aiding Mekong countries. Although most of the document focuses on describing Japan's good gesture of helping Mekong nations, it doesn't try to avoid mentioning regional and global issues, such as the North Korean nuclear dispute and the South China Sea row. In fact, the so-called "freedom of navigation in and overflight over the South China Sea" in the document has long become a cliché of Abe's conversation with ASEAN leaders. Japan is a country outside the South China Sea, but it always tosses out statements that are harmful to regional stability. This is closely linked to Abe's plan to revise the Constitution.

Abe didn't deny that Japan and China share broad prospects of economic cooperation, and that's the reason why he has been positive about the BRI in recent years and eagerly wants to visit China. But to achieve his goal of revising the Constitution, Abe still needs an external political cause. The Tokyo Strategy 2018 is not Japan's plot to counter the BRI, but Abe's political policies have not completely changed as well. Abe's visit to China later this month may send new signals for improving relations with Beijing.

The author is associate professor at School of History and Cultures, Sichuan University.

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