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Trade War

Trump's pressure pushed Beijing toward Tokyo

Xi and Abe rush toward Belt and Road cooperation despite security concerns

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, first from left, met Chinese President Xi Jinping, first from right, on Friday as part of the first official visit to China by a sitting Japanese leader in seven years.

BEIJING/WASHINGTON -- Six years after relations sunk to their lowest in decades, following Tokyo's nationalization of the Senkaku Islands, Japan and China have vowed to put relations back on track, working toward collaborating on Beijing's signature Belt and Road Initiative.

The improved ties owes largely to China's decision to switch gears in its relations with Japan, after U.S. President Donald Trump began dialing up pressure on Beijing, in both national security and trade.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's friendly handshake with Chinese President Xi Jinping on Friday symbolized the warming ties. Abe's visit to Beijing was the first official trip by a sitting Japanese leader in seven years.

But the beginning of the rapprochement goes back to June 2017, according to a Chinese diplomatic source. That month, as part of the U.S. strategy of pursuing "maximum pressure" on North Korea, Washington deployed nuclear-powered aircraft carriers to the Sea of Japan, where they took part in joint drills with Japan's Maritime Self-Defense Force.

The prospect of the North Korea crisis driving Tokyo and Washington to increase their defense cooperation put Beijing on guard, and Xi began to show inclinations toward mending fences with Japan.

That same month, Abe said in a Tokyo speech that Japan was "ready to extend cooperation" with China on Xi's Belt and Road infrastructure drive, albeit under certain conditions. Xi signed off on a Communist Party memo calling for improved relations with Japan.

In December 2017, the U.S. National Security Strategy named China as a "competitor," confirming Beijing's belief that Trump aimed to turn up the pressure on China. Xi gave orders within the party to pursue better ties with Japan even if problems between the two remained unsolved.

This March, trade tensions kicked into high gear when Washington imposed additional sanctions on steel and aluminum. In May, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan, becoming the first sitting Chinese premier to do so in seven years. Li came bearing political gifts, including relaxed rules for Japanese financial institutions looking to invest in yuan-denominated Chinese stocks and bonds, as well as the creation of a body to discuss softening China's regulations on importing Japanese food products.

Earlier this month, U.S. Vice President Mike Pence spoke for close to an hour on America's toughening approach to China, claiming the U.S. "will not relent until our relationship with China is grounded in fairness, reciprocity and respect for our sovereignty." It gave Xi further reasons to befriend Japan.

Meanwhile, Sino-Japanese relations have been improving steadily, particularly on the economic front. More than 500 businesspeople accompanied Abe on his trip to Beijing this time.

Having Japan participate in the Belt and Road Initiative is a long-held goal of China. But opinions were divided within Japan's government, especially between the more amenable Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry, which saw it as an economic opportunity, and the national-security-focused Ministry of Foreign Affairs, which worried about provoking Washington.

Eventually an agreement was reached: Japan would refer to cooperative projects abroad with China as "third-country" cooperation, avoiding the Belt and Road name, and would demand transparency on how projects were handled, amid criticism over debt practices related to the economic initiative. The compromise let the Abe government trumpet its cooperation with China in other countries, and allowed Xi to claim Japan was helping with Belt and Road. Abe first called for third-country cooperation at a summit with Xi in November 2017.

When it comes to communication pipelines with Beijing, Tokyo's main channel was National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi. During Abe's first 2006-07 stint as prime minister, Yachi, as Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs, helped arrange Abe's October 2006 visits to South Korea and China, where the Japanese prime minister agreed with then-leader Hu Jintao to build a "strategic reciprocal relationship." Yachi also helped lay the path for Abe's summit with Xi this week through meetings with Yang Jiechi, a Chinese diplomat and Politburo member who is close to Xi.

Meanwhile, the Trump administration looks unlikely to make an issue of the growing closeness between Tokyo and Beijing unless it begins to run counter to American interests.

Trump's aides hope Abe's meeting with Xi this week will help steer China to change its behavior -- most of all in the economic field.

"It depends on how Japan portrays it," said Yun Sun, co-director of the East Asia Program at the Stimson Center, a U.S. think tank. "If Japan tells the U.S. that we can make the Belt and Road projects more environmentally friendly or we can make them more socially responsible, that may not be a bad message."

The strain between the U.S. and China reaches across a number of fields including the economy and security, raising fears that the powers are on the brink of a new Cold War.

The foremost symbol of the U.S. pressure campaign is its duties on billions of dollars of Chinese goods as part of the two sides' tariff war -- which Washington has made clear it is prepared to escalate by slapping tariffs on all imports from China, depending on how Beijing behaves. The Trump administration reportedly intends to not enter trade talks until and unless China takes concrete action on alleged intellectual property violations and other issues.

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