Welcome to installment XXI (September 2020) of Sino-Japanese Review, a monthly column on major developments in relations between China and Japan that provides a running commentary on the evolution of this important relationship and helps to put current events in perspective.
Abe Shinzo’s resignation marks the end of a tumultuous period in Sino-Japanese relations. He and Xi Jinping took power at the same troubled time when China had just overtaken Japan as the second largest global economy and the dispute surrounding the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands had reached a new stage of intensity. Both developments made Japanese policymakers intensely worried about how to deal with a stronger and more assertive China that was clearly becoming the greatest threat to its security. To complicate matters further, Japan came to see the United States as an unreliable partner in dealing with the Chinese threat, acting too supine under the Obama administration then excessively confrontational under the Trump administration. Some Chinese experts even went so far as to suggest that Abe’s sudden resignation can be explained partly by the difficulty in finding a balance between Japan’s relations with China and with Trump’s United States. Yet this is a fairly questionable interpretation since the approach adopted by Abe – staying close to the U.S. president and dealing with China through a mix of diplomatic engagement and security confrontation – was widely seen as judicious and making the best of difficult circumstances.
The question is now whether Abe’s successor Suga Yoshihide will seek to maintain a similar diplomatic approach and the extent to which he will be able to. His intention to “inherit and move forward” the policies of the Abe administration indeed suggests a desire for continuity. In a debate held at the Japanese Press Club in the lead up to his election as LDP President, Suga emphasized continuity in foreign policy matters but admitted that it would be difficult for him to replicate Abe’s “leadership diplomacy” and he intended to find his own diplomatic stance. The same debate also gave some indications about Suga’s China policy, as he emphasized the need to maintain “high level dialogue” with such an economically important neighbor and to use such dialogue to raise and ultimately solve issues in dispute. The new Prime Minister thus gives no indication that he shares the more hawkish views of other prominent LDP politicians, or that he will revise the Abe policy of engagement.
Suga emphasized continuity in foreign policy matters but admitted that it would be difficult for him to replicate Abe’s “leadership diplomacy”
Interestingly, though, when asked about Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan – originally planned for this Spring but delayed due to the pandemic – Suga refused to make any precise commitment as long as COVID-19 is not under control, even when directly asked if the visit would be realized once the pandemic is over. This is in contrast with an interview he gave to the Nikkei Shimbun in April, in which he stressed the importance of the visit as an occasion to show the world in time of great trouble that Japan and China can cooperate on important transnational issues like public health despite their differences in other areas. Now speaking for himself only, Suga seems to indicate not that dialogue with China is unimportant, but that domestic matters must take priority.
In the same April interview, Suga also described the pandemic as a wake-up call that had revealed Japan’s over-dependence on China for the production of crucial goods like medical equipment. One can thus expect continued enthusiasm and an increase in public subsidies for companies accepting to repatriate such production or distributing it among several countries, a policy announced in the spring that has attracted great interest. As we have already argued before, this does not signal an intention to “decouple” from China.
For Suga, just because domestic matters take priority does not mean that he undervalues dialogue with China
Suga thus seems intensely focused on the homefront rather than on diplomatic matters. Even if this means that diplomatic overture toward China may be put on the backburner for now, the broader direction has not changed. Suga’s reappointment of Motegi Toshimitsu as Foreign Minister and his appointment of Abe Shinzo’s younger brother Kishi Nobuo as Defense Minister point in a similar direction – although Kishi’s close ties to Taiwan have raised some concerns in China. Through a Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman, Beijing has also signaled that it wished to continue on the same track and maintain dialogue and cooperation with the new administration. Xi Jinping himself also sent a fairly warm message of congratulation to the new Prime Minister, calling the two countries “friendly neighbors” and “important countries in Asia and the world.” Chinese authorities even seem to have told its fishermen to stay away from the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, easing fears, for now, of a further exacerbation of the dispute.
With U.S.-China tensions going from bad to worse and growing fears of an armed conflict on the disputed Sino-Indian border, it is no surprise that Beijing would seek to maintain stable relations with its other neighbors. Yet this unsettled geopolitical context also means that the task of the new Japanese administration to find a balance between engagement and confrontation with China will only get harder – it is an open question whether Suga would have the diplomatic finesse to deal with demands from Washington, asking him to take a clearer confrontational stance toward Beijing, or to react appropriately to a Sino-Indian war. The packed political calendar over the next year only adds to the uncertainty, featuring a likely fraught U.S. presidential election in November, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, as well as Suga’s own efforts to consolidate his power within the party before the next LDP presidential elections. If Abe’s resignation marks the end of an era, what comes after in Sino-Japanese relations remains to be seen.