Contemporary Dynamics of Sino-Japanese Relations

Mohd. Adnan, Research Intern, Institute of Chinese Studies.

Contemporary Sino-Japanese relations rested on the logic of economic competition and interdependence along with prevalent distrusts and territorial disputes, have become one of the most crucial bilateral relations in the world. Despite competing with each other over various overlapping economic and strategic interests, their increasing bilateral trade have inextricably bound to each other. World’s second and third largest economy China and Japan respectively, at one side, entangled in regional competition to gain influence and their confrontations over disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands situated in East China sea. On the other side, their indispensable economic interdependence has been the key aspect of their complex relationships. In 2012, the relations between them were severely strained over the confrontations on Senkaku islands. However, increasing economic interdependence and United States’ inward looking “America First” approach have provided an impetus for both states to pacify their relations. This paper intends to explore the contemporary dynamics of Sino-Japanese bilateral relationship.

Historically, Sino-Japanese relations have been of a competitive nature rather than mutual collaboration. Japanese aggression during the late nineteenth and first half of twentieth century has left a deep impact on contemporary Sino-Japanese relations. The relations between them got normalized in the beginning of 1970s and subsequently, they have signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in 1978. Japan has invested heavily in and provided much needed essential technologies to China for its development in the post-Mao era. As Kerry Brown in his 2016 article in The Diplomat, explained, without Japan’s assistance in form of ‘technology and knowledge’, China’s opening up and reforms would not have succeeded ‘as quickly and extensively’ as it happened.

The end of the Cold War and relative rise of China created an environment of competition between these two giants. In 2012, the relations between them hit a serious blow when Japanese government purchased three out of five Senkaku islands from their private owners in order to fully legitimize its claim over the disputed islands. China vehemently opposed this act and various anti-Japan protests erupted across mainland China. Japanese products were boycotted by public and relations between them were severely damaged.

The impasse between China and Japan remained intact until a surge of populism was witnessed in 2016 US presidential election. Consequently, the United States partially relinquished its previous neoliberal approach of leading free trade and open market and opted for an increasingly inward looking “America First” approach. This so called “America First” approach allows the US administration to renegotiate trade deals with its major trading partners and its adoption of protectionist approach to pressurise these partners by putting tariffs. This new development in the international market has unintentionally pushed China and Japan to step aside their differences and come to a cooperative platform. Amid US-China trade confrontation and its protectionist approach, first, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Tokyo and a subsequent reciprocal visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinjo Abe was witnessed in 2018. Since then both states maintained their complicated relationships despite competing and confronting with each other in many overlapping economic and strategic interests.

Contemporary Sino-Japanese economic relations revolve around two sets of notion. On the one hand, they are increasingly interdependent owing to the huge amounts of bilateral trade. According to the data provided by Japan’s foreign ministry in fiscal year 2019, China is by far the largest trading partner of Japan and bilateral trade between them well exceeds above US $ 300 billion. Further, China’s vast demography and rising middle class provides a lucrative market to export-led Japanese economy. While, witnessing the increasing rift between the United States and China, Japan’s importance to China has grown in many ways. Japan has been the major source of essential technology for China since its ‘opening up’ in late 1970s. At a time, when the US is barring Chinese companies from acquiring essential technology, China’s reliance on Japanese technology will only increase. Moreover, while the US is retaliating against its major trade partners including China and Japan, increasing economic engagement becomes a necessity for both states to reduce their dependence on the US markets.

The economic interdependence between China and Japan is expected to further increase once the Regional Economic Comprehensive Partnership (RCEP) is signed. RCEP is a trade agreement, which emphasises on reducing tariffs, between the ten member countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), China, Japan, India, South Korea, Australia, and New Zealand. Last year in November, these states signed text-based negotiations, in which India opted to exclude itself. However, a fissure has surfaced in RCEP because Japan seems reluctant to sign the deal without the inclusion of India. Japan fears without the involvement of India, RCEP will be dominated by China. Though, China is coaxing both Japan and India to get back in the fold of RCEP. It is expected that the Pact will be signed in the year 2020. According to a report published in Xinhua on 5 November, 2019, “once (RCEP) signed, it will form the largest free-trade agreement in Asia covering 47.4 percent of the world’s population, and accounting for 32.2 percent of global GDP, 29.1 percent of trade worldwide and 32.5 percent of global investment”.

On the other hand, since both states are largely export-led economy, they have been competing with each other in third party markets. China and Japan, in recent years, increasingly competed with each other in third party markets on trade, infrastructure projects, and investments, particularly in Southeast Asian countries. Such is the competition that Japan initially avoided to become part of China’s Belt and Road initiative (BRI) – a land-based and maritime infrastructure projects aimed to enhance China’s influence in and connectivity with the rest of Asia, Europe and Africa. And in 2015, Japan initiated its own policy known as ‘Partnership for Quality Infrastructure’ aimed to rival BRI through developing infrastructure projects in foreign countries.

However, in 2017, Japan agreed to cooperate with BRI under certain conditions. A year later, on June 26, 2018, during the Japanese Prime Minister’s visit to Beijing, the first ‘Third-Party Market Cooperation Forum’ was organised in which both states agreed to participate in conducting joint venture projects in third-party markets. According to a report published on the website of the State Council of China on 26 October, 2018, ‘At the (aforementioned) forum, more than 50 cooperation agreements were reached between local governments, financial institutions, and enterprises from the two sides, with the total amount exceeding $ 18 billion’. But conducting such projects is fraught with difficulties, given the competitive nature of this agreement and conditions placed by Japanese government on its enterprises while venturing on third-party projects with China. Further Japan’s insistence on quality and financial viability of targeted projects contrasts with China’s ignorance of these elements. For example, in 2018, a high speed rail project in Thailand was planned to be conducted by the companies from China and Japan but Japanese company abandon this project due to the financial risks involved.

From the strategic point of view, there has been a deep distrust and clash of interests between China and Japan. China’s growing assertiveness in East and South China seas and its claim over Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands and South China Sea increasingly discomforts Tokyo. Further, China’s insistence to ignore International Laws such as Permanent Courts of Arbitration’s July 2016 decisions nullifying its claims in South China Sea contrasts the principles and interests of Japan. To counter Chinese interests and claims, in 2015, Japan introduced the vague concept of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’. Vague in the sense, it does not have a coherent policy and over the years various elements have been added and removed. As the name indicates, it promulgates for an open and free Indian and Pacific Ocean contrasts to China’s claim over South China Sea and its growing influence in Indo-Pacific Ocean. Apart from that, this vague policy also emphasises over freedom of navigation and acceptance of international norms and laws.Through propagation of ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ approach, Japan seeks to mould China in the Western-led International Laws and Treaties, and at the same time, Japan also wants to constrain China’s assertiveness in the region detrimental to its interests.

Further, China’s growing military power and its assertive nature in the region creates a sense of insecurity in Japan. It is a common notion in Japan along with other regional states that China seeks dominance and hegemony in Asian continent. To counter it, Japan propagates a multi-polar order in Asia and adopted a policy of building alliances with like-minded countries, which share the same views and are worried with China’s relative rise. Japan has historical military alliance with the US since the end of Second World War. Recently these two states along with Australia and India have revived the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue initiative, which earlier, in 2007, came into existence but faded away amid China’s opposition. Quad initiative similar to ‘Free and Open Indo-Pacific’ policy but differ in the sense that it has four member state seeking to counter-check China’s growing influence in the Asia-Pacific region.

Along with the territorial dispute, Japan’s close association with the United States and its opposition to Chinese assertiveness in the region have been contrary to China’s interests. It is widely held belief in China that through the revival of Quadrilateral strategic alliance, the US is trying to contain Chinese influence in the region. Japan’s participation in this alliance is perceived by China as a step to limit its growing influence in the region and taking side in a broader Sino-US rivalry. In other words, China sees itself as a major power capable of dominating Asian Continent and feasible challenger to the US led World Order. It expects from Japan along with other regional actors to conform to its interests and do not take side with the US in the broader Sino-US rivalry.

The relations between China and Japan are one of the most complex bilateral relations in the world. Despite competing and clashing with each other in myriad of overlapping interests and prevalent distrust, their economy is well integrated and bilateral trade have continuously been increasing.  Their bilateral relations, which were severed in 2012 over Japan’s nationalization of Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands, have been steaming up again owing to relative decline of the US in the region and it’s America First’ approach. Both states have been continuously propagating for increasing engagement and cooperation. However, structural and political differences between China and Japan remained intact as they were three years ago before their rapprochement.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *