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Prime Minister Abe speaks at the Future of Asia dinner reception in Tokyo on June 5.(Photo by Rie Ishii)

Abe's Belt and Road pivot signals push to improve bilateral ties

Precarious Asian security calls for compromise between neighbors

NAOYA YOSHINO, Nikkei deputy editor | China

TOKYO -- Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's conditional support for China's Belt and Road infrastructure plan tells Beijing that Tokyo is ready to work toward warmer bilateral ties as the future of Asian security grows more uncertain.

Abe praised the initiative's "potential to connect East and West" in a speech Monday, saying Japan is "ready to extend cooperation" on the plan to build an Asian economic sphere through new infrastructure, provided that China ensures projects are developed in a fair and transparent manner. From Beijing's perspective, this is a marked shift from Tokyo's previous policy of making demands on the plan without expressing any support in return, which had led Chinese officials to believe Abe's government took an entirely negative view of it.

A Chinese official who heard Abe's address interpreted the prime minister's message as a "fundamentally positive" one, and "welcomed" the change in attitude.

In fact, for Abe to wait much longer before making this turn could have disrupted Tokyo's carefully laid diplomatic plans. Japan aims to have Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping meet on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in July, and then to revive regular summits of Japan, China and South Korea. This year and next are landmarks in Sino-Japanese relations to begin with: 2017 is the 45th year since China and Japan normalized diplomatic relations, and 2018 is the 40th anniversary of the countries' Treaty of Peace and Friendship.

Tokyo's newly cooperative stance on Belt and Road should advance its efforts to improve ties with Beijing. Better relations could in turn bolster Northeast Asian security as a whole by giving Tokyo and its allies more leverage over North Korea, which continues to develop nuclear weapons and ballistic missiles.

Even after Japan, the U.S. and South Korea pressed for the United Nations resolution condemning Pyongyang's provocations, there is little prospect of the North changing its ways. In fact, nothing can truly rattle the isolated state unless China decides to get tough, considering the North relies on the country for the vast majority of its trade.

Shifting alliances

Under Barack Obama's administration, Washington opposed the Belt and Road Initiative as a challenge to the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact. Abe aligned Japan with the American stance. But there is now concern that President Donald Trump -- having withdrawn from the TPP -- could ignore long-held principles of Asian security and engage in risky horse-trading with China in the name of putting "America First." For Tokyo, improving relations with Beijing is in some sense a wise insurance policy against getting lost in the shuffle.

Abe's shift on the Belt and Road plan makes it easier for China to come to the table as well. Xi and his cohort are eager to tighten their political grip by ensuring their allies get key leadership positions at the Communist Party's twice-a-decade National Congress this fall, where the president will begin his second term as the party's general secretary. As such, Xi aims to avoid wasting energy handling friction with the likes of Japan and the U.S. before then.

Xi also views the strong relationship Trump and Abe have developed so far as a sort of threat -- one that getting closer to Japan and disrupting any tightening in the U.S.-Japan alliance against China could lessen.

But as things stand, it will not be an entirely straightforward matter for China and Japan to get on better terms. Though Abe has said Japan is ready to cooperate on Belt and Road, his government is not planning any specific steps to do so, such as joining the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Nor can Japan realistically overlook Chinese provocations in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands, which Japan administers and China claims as the Diaoyu. Beijing's territorial claims and island-building activity in the South China Sea are also unacceptable to Tokyo.

Meanwhile, China has not taken steps to rein in North Korea. If Pyongyang's nuclear and missile tests continue, existing conflicts in Asia could deepen, pitting Japan and the U.S. against China, the North, and even Russia, should Moscow choose to take sides.

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