Abe in Beijing: The quiet accommodation in China-Japan relations

Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomes Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to the G20 Summit in Hangzhou, Zhejiang province, China September 4, 2016. REUTERS/Damir Sagolj - S1AETZIEOYAA

Without fanfare or major elaboration, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has arrived in Beijing for the first formal bilateral visit by a Japanese leader to China in nearly seven years. Though nominally intended to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, the visit culminates a quiet process of mutual accommodation over the past year.

The process reflects realism and self-interest on both sides. Throughout the leadership tenures of Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, political-military rivalry, enduring historical grievances, and (more recently) competing conceptions of Asian infrastructural development have dominated relations between the continent’s two most important powers. But both leaders exhibit growing disquiet about larger international trends that could seriously harm the interests of both states.

Many of these concerns are directly attributable to U.S. actions. Donald Trump is the most disruptive American president in memory. His withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership shortly after his election was the first step in a series of actions that have weakened the institutions and policies enabling East Asia’s unparalleled economic advancement for more than a half-century. But Trump, first as businessman and now as president, argues that globalization has enabled others to exploit the United States, thus requiring major departures from established U.S. policy.

Trump’s ire has long been directed at Japan, Korea, and the European Union, but his major target is now China. The administration has embarked on a full-court press against Beijing. The starkness of U.S. characterizations—most fully in Vice President Mike Pence’s October 4 speech at the Hudson Institute—depict China as a long-term threat to U.S. interests, which Washington contends is driven by predatory economic strategies. The administration’s imposition of tariffs on Chinese exports to the United States is an early move in this process, and creates the possibility of an open-ended trade war across the Pacific.

Japan and other major export economies (including the United States) have legitimate economic grievances with China, including continued restrictions on market access to protected sectors of the Chinese economy; an increasingly inhospitable business climate, including forced technology transfer as a condition for business transactions; the failure to fully uphold intellectual property rights of foreign firms; and China’s unwillingness to acknowledge its rapid advancement toward developed-economy status. Other than the United States, all see a trade war as a looming disaster. Some U.S. officials also argue for an economic “decoupling” from China, which is already the world’s leading trading state. Japan and other leading export economies are extensively enmeshed with China, and they do not want to become collateral damage in any larger U.S.-China trade conflict.

The Trump administration’s resort to unilateralism has also impinged directly on Japan. The United States now imposes tariffs on Japanese exports to the United States and threats to extend the tariffs to Japanese auto exports, has weakened or in some cases dismantled major multilateral agreements (including the Paris climate accords and the Iran nuclear agreement), complains about burden-sharing with Tokyo and other U.S. allies, and pressures Japan to agree to bilateral trade negotiations. President Trump’s open-ended cultivation of North Korea, all in the absence of any signs that Kim Jong-un is prepared to forego his country’s nuclear weapons capabilities, adds an additional and highly worrisome development for Tokyo.

Close relations with the United States have almost always been the first order of business for Japan. Moreover, no foreign leader has invested more political and personal capital in relations with Donald Trump than Shinzo Abe. Thus far, Abe has quietly absorbed many of these body blows, but they must be personally humiliating. Though close relations with the United States remain essential to Tokyo, Abe is seeking ways to limit the potential damage of Trump’s policy moves, while also demonstrating a capacity to protect Japanese interests independent of the United States.

The Trump administration has therefore provided an unspoken rationale for a stabilized if not intimate relationship between Tokyo and Beijing. Enduring suspicions between both countries persist within leadership and in public opinion, especially in Japanese views of China. Even acknowledging these strategic differences, Abe and Xi have substantial incentives to at least test the waters of a “new normal” in bilateral relations.

A more stable floor begins with economic considerations, including areas where Japan and China might explore more coordinated approaches to Asia’s infrastructural development. Both see infrastructural investments as a core component of long-term foreign policy strategy. Though their respective approaches often diverge, some of these differences are not unbridgeable, and a head-to-head competition makes little sense. Tokyo and Beijing also continue to pursue the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a multilateral arrangement that would encompass all of Asia’s major trading partners. A China-Japan-South Korea free trade zone is also another prospective discussion item between the two leaders.

Abe and Xi both have an inherent interest in upholding the multilateral trading system, and want to determine whether an enhanced bilateral economic relationship provides a means to do so. They also recognize that the Sino-Japanese relationship is too big to fail. This week’s discussions in Beijing will test their ability and determination to carve out a domain of overlapping interests, without overplaying their respective hands. The Trump administration, thus far oblivious to the unforced errors of economic nationalism, will watch from the sidelines.