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.