Japan is pursuing a pragmatic foreign policy and is engaging China politically and diplomatically. During their summit meeting at Beijing in October 2018, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping acknowledged that both countries are “neighbors and partners” and “will not become a threat of each other.” Japan is also making earnest attempts to boost economic ties with China and has shed suspicion over the Belt Road Initiative (BRI). In May 2017, a high level delegation led by Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary-General of Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party, participated in the BRI Forum in Beijing, and in June 2018 Prime Minister Abe announced that his country was ready to cooperate with China on the BRI clearly suggesting that Tokyo had moved from competition to collaboration.
Japan and China have now announced their intention to jointly develop infrastructure in third country and endorsed 50 projects, including development of ‘an energy efficient smart city in Thailand and an offshore wind power project in Germany’. Although, the consortium approach has been identified as the methodology for the above projects, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe did not miss the opportunity to convey to his counterpart that Japanese cooperation invited a caveat that China adopt international norms of transparency and avoid financial burden on the recipient country.
Among the many reasons for China to team up with Japan to jointly develop projects in third country is to salvage prestige over the failing image of the BRI which has run into roadblocks in at least eight destinations. Many other recipient nations of the Chinese BRI largess are also voicing grave concerns over issues of debt servicing, low economic and social benefit, and above all there are signs of BRI becoming hostage to domestic political contestations and the contending parties have raised the issue of corruption in the Chinese assisted projects.
For Tokyo and Beijing, joint initiatives for the BRI are also seen as a win-win strategy; the former is in a position to guide China toward re-strategizing the BRI by respecting international norms and transparency which are the fundamental principles of economic cooperation. The latter sees it as a useful tool to encourage major donors such as the IMF and the ADB to support investments as also secure more businesses for its companies. Pakistan government’s request for US $11 billion loans to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to deal with the external-sector problems is in abeyance; the IMF has sought “disclosure of Chinese financing deals under CPEC”. This is notwithstanding the fact that 22 projects worth US $28 billion under the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor have been apparently completed in the past 4 years.
The above euphoria over the thaw in relationship between Japan and China must be tampered with at least four critical strategic and security issues that continue to plague the bilateral relationship. First, the dispute over the Senkaku Islands remains unresolved, and frequent Chinese naval forays into Japanese waters have irked the relationship. For instance, in January 2018, a Chinese nuclear submarine sailed through Japanese contiguous zone, which caused uproar in Tokyo. Similarly, Chinese fishermen are very assertive and have been illegally fishing in the Japanese EEZ leading to diplomatic and security tensions.
Second, Japan has expressed serious concerns over the Chinese handling of the Uighurs, the Muslim ethnic group of Turkic ancestry who live in the Xinjiang Autonomous Region. Beijing’s highhandedness is marked by religious and cultural oppression, mass detention of the ethnic people, ‘reeducation’ campaign, human rights issues including ‘Han-ization’ of the region. Apparently, Prime Minister Abe conveyed to President Xi Jinping that “The international community including Japan has been paying close attention to the human rights situation in China,”
Third, the current Sino-Japanese engagement comes in the backdrop of tensions between the US and China over the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (QSD) which includes Australia, Japan, India and the United States. Closely related to the QSD is Japan’s vision of a regional order pivoting on ‘free and open Indo-Pacific’; but China is wary of both the QSD and the Indo-Pacific, and sees these as containment strategy. Further, US’ aggressive naval posturing, the Freedom of Navigation patrols in the South China Sea, and Japan’s deployment of its helicopter carrier in the South China Sea add to Beijing’s anxieties.
Nevertheless, President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have made a promising beginning and endorsed the idea of making the East China Sea a “sea of peace, cooperation and friendship”. This is being supplemented by preliminary military and naval confidence building measures such as cooperation during search and rescue operations in waters off the two nations, a hotline to avert accidental clashes at sea and in the air, and resume talks about a 2008 bilateral accord on joint gas development in the contested waters. These initiatives are surely going to add to peace and stability in East Asia which will be complimented by the ongoing peace dialogue between North and South Korea.
Dr Vijay Sakhuja is former Director National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi and is associated with the Kalinga International Foundation, New Delhi.