August 3, 2017 10:00 am JST

Richard McGregor: China-Japan rapprochement is farther away than it seems

Talk of warmer ties and possible summit can't mask the diplomatic permafrost

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, and Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in November 2014 © Reuters

Donald Trump's election as U.S. president and his erratic performance in office have ricocheted around the world in multiple ways during his brief time in power. Asian countries are regrouping on trade after Trump led the U.S. out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, the European Union and China are bonding on global warming in the wake of his exit from the Paris climate deal, and Germany has found itself improbably hailed as the world's leading, and most stable, democracy.

Some analysts have also detected a potential shift in another important and often overlooked geopolitical relationship, that between Japan and China, with numerous eminent commentators in Asia and the U.S. cautiously canvassing a possible rapprochement.

Sino-Japanese relations have been particularly fraught for more than seven years following a series of incidents over the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, which are known in China as the Diaoyu. The standoff was at its worst in 2012, when Tokyo nationalized the islands to head off a purchase facilitated by a prominent right-wing politician, Shintaro Ishihara -- an act that Beijing considered a breach of the two countries' understanding that the islands' status would be left undisturbed.

The good news is that Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have gradually stabilized relations through a number of frosty but workmanlike bilateral meetings since both came to power five years ago. The leaders may struggle to smile when they pose for photographs together, but at least they are talking. In recent months, with the two countries signaling the way ahead, the pace of the dialogue has quickened.

Tokyo has agreed to look at some form of cooperation with Beijing's Belt and Road Initiative, a grand plan to extend China's strategic and commercial reach to its hinterland, and eventually all the way to Europe. Though Abe has said little in public, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, delivered a personal letter from Abe that included language praising the BRI when he met Xi in Beijing on May 16.

Nikai's involvement is significant. As a prominent pro-China member of the LDP, he is trying to re-establish the kind of back-channel relationship that allows for quiet discussion and the private passing of messages between leaders. Such "pipes," as they are known in Japan, were once a bulwark of stability between the two countries.

Yang Jiechi, China's top diplomat, visited Tokyo for talks on May 29 with his longstanding counterpart, Shotaro Yachi, and Japanese government sources said afterward that Japan expressed its desire for mutual visits in 2018. Specific dates were not discussed, but Yang and Yachi agreed "to make efforts to fully improve relations."

STILL WARY Such outreach is important and, at least in some respects, stems from Japan's worries about Trump. A genuine rapprochement between Japan and China, however, seems far off.

For starters, Abe's Asian diplomacy entails much more than repairing relations with China. The bigger story is what the prime minister, perhaps the most-travelled Japanese leader in history, has been doing elsewhere in the region. Abe has attempted to solidify ties with a range of regional partners, including India, Vietnam, Australia and the Philippines, all with an eye to giving him greater leverage in dealing with Beijing. In many ways, Abe has been filling the vacuum left by the U.S. in trying to build a coalition of democracies in Asia with a common interest in countering Chinese dominance.

Abe is right to remain wary of Beijing. After all, China's military activity in and around Japan has gathered pace while the countries' leaders have been trying to mend ties. In July, Beijing flew six military jets through the Miyako Strait, between the Japanese islands of Okinawa and Miyako, and sent naval ships into Japanese territorial waters off the island of Kyushu for the first time. These were not the acts of a friendly neighbor, and that is without even mentioning the Senkaku Islands.

Ever since the 2012 standoff, Beijing's various armadas, its fishing fleets, which operate under government control, its militarized Coast Guard and its naval ships, have all in one way or another been circling the islands 24 hours a day, occasionally dipping into Japan's territorial waters to make their intentions clear.

Short of another unforeseen disruption in ties, Sino-Japanese relations have long been on a timetable for a touch of warming. As early as last year, both sides were exploring the idea of a summit in 2018. The timing of the meeting has a certain diplomatic symmetry, as the two countries' leaders also met in summits in 1998 and 2008.

But step back for a moment, and a summit next year does not look like such a big deal. It is more like marking time than anything else. If the leaders of neighboring counties with mutually interdependent economies cannot manage a formal summit more than once in a decade, what does that say about the health of the bilateral relationship? Xi and Russian President Vladimir Putin have met three times this year alone.

In that respect, the relative calm between China and Japan is misleading. The two sides have not really seen the light. Rather, for the moment, they have merely tired of the darkness. Given the enduring strategic gulf between them, and the intractable territorial dispute over the Senkakus, it cannot be long before the skies cloud over again.

Although Abe and Trump have formed a good personal bond, the Japanese government understands that East Asian geopolitics may be moving into a dangerous new era, dominated by a strengthening China and an America in retreat.

Richard McGregor is a Washington-based journalist and author. His latest book, "Asia's Reckoning: China, Japan and the Fate of U.S. Power in the Pacific Century," will be published in September by Viking Press.

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