The tectonic plates of geopolitics have shifted in response to the Trump presidencyby David Warren / October 31, 2018 / Leave a comment
Four years ago, when we were marking the centenary of First World War and were looking for parallels in our own time, it was suddenly fashionable to see China and Japan as the 21stcentury’s equivalent of Germany and Britain—a rising and a declining power whose relations were soured by bitter, unresolved history and economic rivalries, and who might slip inexorably into conflict because of the “Thucydides trap.” The tensions preventing two economic super-powers co-existing peacefully in the Asia-Pacific region seemed intractable.
Last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe visited Beijing as the guest of the Chinese government. He led a business delegation several hundred strong, signed joint infrastructure development agreements, a $30bn three-year currency swap deal and a search and rescue co-operation agreement, inspected a guard of honour on Tiananmen Square, was feted at a banquet by President Xi Jinping, and formally announced that China was no longer a recipient of Japanese aid, but a “neighbour and partner.” “We will not become a threat to each other,” he told his Chinese counterpart, Li Keqiang. He announced the aim of re-starting talks on the joint development of gas fields in the East China Sea (which had formed the centrepiece of the last round of high level bilateral contacts ten years ago), and took possession of the inevitable panda—the eternal symbol of Chinese diplomatic benevolence.
How did the relationship move from hostility to normalisation? It is not as if the underlying problems have gone away. The two countries continue to lay claim to the same islands in the East China Sea—even if Tokyo disputes the existence of a “dispute.” Japanese concerns remain over Chinese land reclamation and military expansion in the South China Sea: a Japanese submarine took part in US-led war games in those waters in September.
The answer is in large part the shifting tectonic plates of geo-politics. The Japanese have for years been frustrated that western countries, keen to build economic partnerships with China, have failed to see Beijing as a power fundamentally challenging the status quo in the Asia-Pacific. Now, with President Trump approaching the mid-point of what many assume will prove a two-term presidency, both the Japanese and the Chinese see another power challenging the status quo—and this inevitably leads to a re-evaluation of relationships.
The Japanese government is walking a tightrope. It now sees an opportunity to respond to China’s renewed desire to engage. But it will not want to do so in terms that drive a wedge with the US. It may be concerned about the unpredictability of US policy under Trump. But there remains no obvious alternative to trusting in the principles of “Pax Americana” and the 1960 Security Alliance. US attitudes present obvious conflicts for Japan. It may privately welcome US pressure on China to live up to its global commitments on fair as well as free trade. But US challenges to the multilateral mechanisms by which that system is policed threaten Japan as well as China. China’s need to build bridges to its major regional trade and investment partner, and draw it into its faltering Belt and Road Initiative, present an opportunity which Japan can exploit—to neutralise a potential threat, and perhaps also to help broker a way of asserting the importance of opposing protectionism, as the two leaders affirmed last week.
As western commentators have said, for two rivals to come together in this way is good news at a troubling time. But a dose of realism is always needed. For all the efforts of both governments to support cultural and educational exchanges, and the upsurge of Chinese tourism in Japan in recent years, the underlying distrust between the two peoples has not receded. Skilful diplomacy and political leadership has steered the relationship back towards where it was before the disastrous deterioration of the 2010-2012 period. What happens next? Abe has invited Xi to attend next year’s G20 summit, to be held in Osaka in June. Will Xi also become the first foreign leader to meet the new Japanese Emperor, who will assume the Chrysanthemum Throne when Emperor Akihito abdicates in April?
And the assumption on both sides of the relationship must be that the global context will not change in the short term. This seems reasonable. Privately, some Japanese policy-makers may dream of Trump suffering a reverse in the mid-term elections, US business re-asserting itself to prevent the worst dangers of a trade war with China, and a return to something approaching “normalcy.” But at the time of writing, with Trump firing up his Republican base as he re-writes the political rule-book, it is not obvious that this is going to happen. “America First” will continue to mean the US’s allies and adversaries re-positioning themselves in an uncertain world.