The bleak future of China-Japan relations in post-Abe era

With Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announcing his resignation due to health reasons, it is difficult to say what China-Japan relations will be like in the post-Abe era under a new prime minister. But Zaobao correspondent Yu Zeyuan says one thing is clear: the outlook is not positive.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is seen on a large screen during a live press conference in Tokyo on 28 August 2020, as he announced that he will resign over health problems.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe is seen on a large screen during a live press conference in Tokyo on 28 August 2020, as he announced that he will resign over health problems.

On 28 August, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe announced his resignation due to health reasons. His successor would likely emerge in mid-September. Where does this leave China-Japan relations in the post-Abe period? The outlook does not seem positive.

On 29 August, Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian responded to Abe’s announcement, saying: “In recent years, China-Japan relations got back to the right track and achieved new progress. Leaders of the two sides reached important consensus on building a bilateral relationship in keeping with the new era. We speak positively of Prime Minister Abe's important efforts in this process and wish him a speedy recovery.”

While China’s response is steeped in diplomatic jargon, it does reflect the fact that over Abe’s last eight years in office, China-Japan relations have not deteriorated, but have improved over the past couple of years.

In September 2012, China-Japan relations hit a low over the Japanese government’s purchase of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, with China’s coast guard boats ramping up activities around the islands. After Abe took office in December 2012, he continued to take a tough stance towards China, but China did not back off, and instead gradually began regular patrols around the islands, and taking more initiative in the dispute.

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This combination image of four undated photographs shows (from L to R) Japan’s Defence Minister Taro Kono, Liberal Democratic Party member Fumio Kishida, Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, and Liberal Democratic Party member Shigeru Ishiba, who are contenders to replace Shinzō Abe after announcing his resignation as the country's prime minister. (Jiji Press/AFP)

Under Abe, Japan-China relations on an even keel

Looking at China-Japan relations over the Abe era, although Japan has not given in to China on issues such as paying respects at the Yasukuni Shrine and sovereignty over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, and has sometimes joined in US-led actions to contain China, there has been no serious conflict between China and Japan over issues of history and sovereignty. Both sides have carried out regular trade and cultural exchanges, and have not allowed political relations to deteriorate. Chinese President Xi Jinping would have visited Japan this spring if not for the coronavirus.

With the Abe era drawing to a close, it is hard to tell what policy the new Japanese prime minister will take towards China. But what is more certain is that China-Japan relations will be more challenging and unpredictable than during Abe’s time.

After the pandemic broke out, Japan sent boxes of supplies to Wuhan, complete with lines of poetry, such as “山川异域,风月同天” (We are from different lands and are separated by mountains and waters. Yet above us, we share the same sky and the same feelings), and “青山一道同云雨,明月何曾是两乡” (You and I are on different lands, but the same clouds and rain line our sky. Look up, the Moon is the same also), which warmed hearts in China. And when China subsequently sent supplies to Japan in return, it also responded with lines including “青山一道,同担风雨” (From different lands, together facing wind and rain). While such interactions are on a civilian level, it is evidence of relatively stable political relations between China and Japan in the Abe era.

When Abe took office during his first term as prime minister in 2006, his first overseas visit was to China, showing his sincerity in wanting to improve China-Japan relations. During his second term, due to the domestic and foreign situation — especially pressure from the US — Abe had to appear tough towards China, but did not allow China-Japan relations to go out of control. He did not completely fall in step with US measures to contain China; on the contrary, in 2018, after the China-US trade war began, he made another visit to China, showing that he was not a hardliner against China, but wanted to maintain some balance between China and the US.

With the Abe era drawing to a close, it is hard to tell what policy the new Japanese prime minister will take towards China. But what is more certain is that China-Japan relations will be more challenging and unpredictable than during Abe’s time.

Uncertain future to be charted by new prime minister

The biggest uncertainty in China-Japan relations is how China-US relations will change. At the moment, whether Trump is re-elected or Biden is voted in, the US will not stop its all-out containment of China. As a political vassal of the US, in fact, Japan has little choice but to stand with the US in containing China’s rise.

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In this file photo taken on 25 September 2020, US President Donald Trump and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe shake hands after signing a trade agreement in New York, on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly. US President Donald Trump on 30 August 2020 praised outgoing Prime Minister Shinzō Abe as Japan's best head of government ever. (Saul Loeb/AFP)

Of course, how far Japan will go in containing China has a lot to do with the new prime minister and their stance and choices. However, among Japan’s middle- and new-generation political figures, the “pro-China” camp with positive views on China is getting smaller, while traditional pro-China political veterans such as Toshihiro Nikai and Banri Kaieda are either getting old or have basically retired from politics. In the short term, no one can say if Japan will see another prime minister like Shinzō Abe, who appears tough against China but actually wants to improve China-Japan relations.

Last week, the US announced that it will be deploying mid-range missiles in Asia, with Japan a clear top choice. This would put Japan in a dilemma...

But whoever takes over as prime minister, it will be difficult to avoid old issues of history, territory, and the Taiwan question, while facing the possibility of conflict between China and the US, especially with new issues like the US possibly deploying mid-range missiles in Japan, aimed at China.

Last week, the US announced that it will be deploying mid-range missiles in Asia, with Japan a clear top choice. This would put Japan in a dilemma: if it agrees, once there is fighting, Japan will be a target for missiles from China; if it declines, Japan would not be able to withstand pressure from the US.

As an ally of the US, Japan might have to accept the deployment of the missiles, but China will take countermeasures and China-Japan relations will take a fresh hit. In this context, balancing Japan-US relations and Japan-China relations will be a huge challenge for Japan’s new prime minister.

As opponents with lingering historical and current entanglements, China and Japan cannot get too close; but as neighbours and important trade partners, the interests of China and Japan are tightly linked, and no one can easily decouple. Shifting between opposition and cooperation might be the hallmark of China-Japan relations in the post-Abe era.

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