Growing Proximities

Spearhead Analysis – 16.10.2017

By Shirin Naseer
Research Analyst, Spearhead Research

The Japanese Prime Minister last month along with his Foreign Minister Taro Kono made a surprise visit to a Chinese event marking China’s National Day and the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations. The Asahi Shimbun reported that PM Abe unexpectedly decided to attend the ceremony some time before it was scheduled to take place. This was a first for the Sino-Japanese relationship; the Japanese prime minister had not attended the annual event in fifteen years. Consequently, the ceremony became the subject of a lot of debate and curiosity in both Japanese and Chinese political circles.

During the event both countries exchanged congratulatory telegrams, which they had not done in ten years. PM Abe admitted that stronger cooperation between China and Japan is crucial to peace and prosperity in the region, given the current political climate. He expressed his enthusiasm towards making further efforts to strengthen bilateral ties that he hoped would benefit both countries. He also invited the Chinese president to visit Japan and revealed his plans to visit China soon.

Following Shinzo Abe’s surprise September appearance, the Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Yokoi Yutaka, the Japanese Ambassador to China, in Beijing. In the meeting, Wang said that as the bilateral relationship develops Beijing will be expecting more positive news from Japan.

In recent months it has become somewhat obvious that both China and Japan are eager to change the trajectory of the bilateral relationship, whether by way of direct or indirect advances.

This year in July China as per convention held a ceremony on the 80th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge incident– known to have led to a full-scale war with Japan in 1937. However this year several analysts noticed the difference: China significantly held back on anti-Japanese rhetoric during the event. Many analysts hold Abe’s recent outreach to Japan responsible. China exhibited a lot of restraint especially compared to the time when the Chinese president himself attended the 77th anniversary and took to the podium to make a speech.

Additionally, China hosted various events to celebrate the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China relations in August. On August 29, 1000 Chinese and Japanese students were invited to a ceremony in Beijing, and the Chinese vice premier Liu Yandong also sent congratulatory messages.

In addition, Japan recently expressed interest in Chinas OBOR initiative and the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Some Chinese news channels also picked up on reports of neither Abe nor his cabinet visiting the Yasukuni Shrine for the memorial ceremony on August 15 this year. In 37 years this was the first time that no ruling cabinet member visited the shrine on the day marking Japan’s surrender in World War 2.

Moreover, it also helps the state of relations between the two countries when the foreign ministers of both Japan and China are known to be exceedingly familiar with each other’s countries’ workings.

The Japanese Foreign Minister Taro Kono is the son of Yohei Kono, who was a former Japanese foreign minister and deputy prime minister. Yohei was famous for being amicable towards the Chinese. Yohei is also known to have been frequently invited by Beijing for political events. Once Taro assumed office, several analysts discussed the possibility of him sharing the same interests and having similar political leanings as his father.  

On the Chinese side, Wang is known to have an excellent command on the Japanese language. He has been the Chinese Ambassador to Japan from 2004 to 2007. Several analysts believe Wang had a huge role to play in convincing Abe to visit China as Prime Minister in 2006.

Perhaps Abe’s surprising gesture is indicative of room for possible cooperation on other more sensitive topics between China and Japan as well. On North Korea for instance there might be some room for influence. Japan is convinced about sanctions on North Korea rather than dialogue. Beijing on the other hand has repeatedly expressed its concerns about the rise of tensions over North Korea and, while it too has signed up for tough UN sanctions, it has also pushed for opening talks. Wang told Japan’s Foreign Minister Taro Kono on the sidelines of a United Nations meeting in New York that the situation on the Korean Peninsula was getting increasingly serious and all sides needed to remain calm. Perhaps with improvement in relations Japan may also be pushed to reassess its position.

At the same time however it is also important to consider Abe’s friendly gesture may have been driven by domestic events rather than the apparently innocuous need to mend and reinvigorate old ties. Abe recently dissolved the House of Representatives of the Japanese Parliament (the Diet), which elicited an election.

According to one Japanese official quoted in the Asahi Shimbun: “Abe probably thought that showing a stance of tackling diplomatic challenges positively will be beneficial for the election. Therefore, he took part in the ceremony despite it being the day of the dissolution.”

If this is so, it is likely Abe may go back to his tough approach on China once his party is able to reestablish control of the Diet with a fresh mandate.

Broadly speaking, Japan is currently working with India and the US to check Beijing’s expansion in the South China Sea. If relations are to improve between Japan and China and Japan is to become part of CPEC it is significant to consider ways in which Pakistan may also stand to benefit.

At present, Pakistan’s foreign policy remains largely inactive in East Asia, despite India gaining major grounds with its “Act East” policy. Japan’s economic activities in Pakistan are limited, to say the least. The Joint Statement issued in New Delhi at the conclusion of Shinzo Abe’s recent visit to India, upset Islamabad since it referred to Pakistan as a country sheltering terrorists. Unfortunately, Pakistan has not been able to broaden its focus beyond its ongoing issues with India, Afghanistan and the US. The last high-level visit in the Japan-Pakistan relationship was made by the Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi to Pakistan in 2005. From the Pakistani side, President Asif Ali Zardari visited Japan in 2011. Japan was once a crucial pillar of Pakistan’s diplomatic and economic base. It used to be one of the largest trading partners before the Sino-Pakistan trade took off.     

More recently, the Senior Deputy Minister for Foreign Affairs of Japan, Kazuyuki Yamazaki, headed a Japanese delegation to Pakistan to participate at the 10th Round Bilateral Consultation. There is a willingness to forge stronger relations between Pakistan and Japan. Any improvement in the Japan-China relationship will likely only give Pakistan a chance to explore its policy options in a broader context.