China and Japan Show Signs of a Closer Relationship

When Japan selected its new prime minister Fumio Kishida on 4 October 2021, there were concerns that his known conservative views did not augur well for Japan’s relationship with China. Thus far, however, those fears appear to have been overly pessimistic. Four days ago on the 50th anniversary of the establishment of China-Japan formal diplomatic ties, the Japanese Prime Minister telephoned his Chinese counterpart.

By all accounts, the conversation was very friendly. For his part Xi noted that Japan and China were close neighbours and he cited an ancient Chinese saying that good neighbourliness is a treasure of a country. He made the point that the development of friendly and cooperative relations between the two countries is in line with the fundamental interests of both countries and their people, and also conducive to Asian and even global peace, stability and prosperity.

Xi Jinping’s comments to his Japanese counterpart were notable for the positive spin he placed on the relationship, highlighting the potential that existed between both countries to benefit from cordial relations. And in what has become a trademark of Xi’s approach to international relations, he stressed that both should seek a “win-win” approach to their relationship. They should practice true multilateralism, carry forward the East Asian wisdom of seeking harmony without uniformity and work together to coordinate their response to global challenges.

For his part, Kishida extended his congratulations on China’s National Day. He said that under the current international and regional circumstances Japan-China relations were entering a new era. He expressed Japan’s willingness to work with China in the new era that their relationship was entering. He saw the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of diplomatic relations as an opportunity to make a joint effort in building a constructive and stable relationship between the two countries.

Kishida stressed that the two sides should manage their differences through dialogue. He said that Japan was ready to work with China to continuously strengthen economic co-operation. He saw merit in continuously strengthening people to people exchanges. Potential also existed in working together on issues such is the response to COVID 19 and also climate change.

Both leaders expressed the view that the conversation was both important and timely. They agreed to continue their interaction through various means to ensure that their relationship continued in the right direction.

This may be seen as a remarkable event on a number of bases. The relationship between Japan and China has not been an easy one. Part of this has been the influence of the United States, whose hostility to China has a long history. The United States has asserted an enormous influence on Japan since the end of World War II. Today there are still approximately 80,000 United States troops stationed in Japan, about 2/3 of whom are on the island of Okinawa.

This presence is extraordinary. It is more than 75 years since the end of World War II and yet one of the victorious powers in that war, the United States, continues to occupy the defeated Japanese long after any possible basis for the occupation ceased. The Japanese economy has been strong and today it remains the world’s third largest economy. Its constitution prohibits the formulation of belligerent forces, and even if it did, it is difficult to imagine modern Japan having any belligerent attitudes to its neighbours. Japan has created an extremely modern economy and in most respects is superior to that of its American equivalents.

On the face of it there is no legitimate basis for the continued occupation of the country by an extensive United States occupying force. The reason is not difficult to conceive. For the United States, Japan provides a series of major bases, home to 80,000+ troops, located in proximity to China.

The United States’ hostility to China is the overwhelming reason for their continued occupation, in much the same way that the presence of United States troops in Germany is linked to their hostility to Russia.  Mr Kishida’s discussions with the Chinese president, and the expressions of friendship and hopes for improved relationships are therefore highly significant.

There have been other moves taken that signify a different and better relationship between Japan and the People’s Republic of China. China is now Japan’s largest trading partner.  Total trade last year amounted to more than $350 billion. The nature of the relationship between Japan and China, as exemplified by Mr Kishida’s remarks, makes a continuation of that relationship a strong likelihood of continued growth.

In the light of these developments, it is all the more curious that Japan has allowed itself to be a part of the so-called Quad of nations, along with the United States, India and Australia, that is manifestly anti-China in its intentions and outlook. The inclusion of India in this group is also extremely odd. India has a long-established relationship with Russia, and in 2017 became a full member of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation. Notwithstanding some border disputes with China, that country in 2020 became India’s largest trading partner.

The formation of the AUKUS group of nations this year would have given both India and Japan pause to consider just how sincere the United States is in its QUAD relationship. Manifestly, the existence of this group does nothing for the relationship of either Japan or India with China.

The challenge for Mr Kishida will be to develop further his country’s relationship with China in the face of what will obviously be United States hostility and every attempt being made by the United States to undermine any moves towards deeper cooperation between Japan and China. The contact between Kishida and Xi and the sentiments expressed by both men as quoted above clearly signal that the Japanese are intent on moving beyond the Cold War mantra that marked the attitude and behaviour of Kishida’s predecessors.

The reaction of the Americans to these moves by Japan to approve its relationship with China will be interesting. It is a safe bet that the move towards improving the relationship will not be welcomed by the Americans. There has thus far been no overt United States response to the Kishida-Xi telephone call, although it is a safe bet that they would not have been happy with the cordiality of the meeting and the positive public comments of both the Japanese and Chinese leaders.

Perhaps the Americans feel that the large number of troops that remain in Japan, and the acquiescence of previous Japanese leaders to United States wishes on the China relationship will sufficiently hamper Kishida from giving effect to the sentiments he expressed in the conversation with Xi.  In that they are almost certainly mistaken. For the first time in decades the Japanese are actually looking to Japan’s vital interests rather than being an echo chamber for United States’ interests.

As such, the election of Mr Kishida may be yet another signal that the situation in East Asia continues to alter radically. It is a development that will make the Americans unhappy, but it is a sign that the political landscape is undergoing inexorable change.

James O'Neill is a retired Barrister at Law and geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at Read other articles by James.