The exchange of congratulations between the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe and his Chinese counterpart Li Keqiang on the 40th anniversary of signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship in August 1978 is a prominent event regarding the transformation of the political map of the Indian and the Pacific Ocean region, which is going on right before our very eyes.
And it is not about the document per se, which does not legally bind the parties. Declarations of intention of the kind appear during the periods of more or less favourable relations between the signatories. When there are no reasons for a sudden deterioration of the abovementioned relations expected (at least in the near future).
Such a period lasted for almost 2 decades of the 20th century (the 1970s and 1980s). Let us remind you that Japan and China established official diplomatic relations 6 years prior to signing the aforementioned Treaty.
Among the factors expediting the development of the Japanese-Chinese relations at the time, let us single out the predominant one: the 2 countries found themselves on the same side of the barricade that divided the global political arena at the time and, as it turned out, for many years to come. Which, in its turn, removed the risk of whatever important political hindrances to having a mutually advantageous economic cooperation.
One should keep in mind that the success of the famous reforms carried out by Deng Xiaoping in China was to a great extent the result of the financial and technical backing provided by Japan. Which, of course, had nothing to do with charity work. Expediting the economic development of its huge partner, Japan received a gigantic market for selling the products of its industry, which was mostly oriented towards export.
This is, in fact, the idea of the flying geese paradigm that emerged in Japan as far as the late 1920s as an alternative to the European practice of interacting with colonial countries.
However, currently China is selling more goods to Japan than it buys from it ($ 30 b more with the total turnover of $ 270 b). But even so, the importance of China for Japan as an economic partner can hardly be exaggerated. China is currently buying 17% of all the goods exported from Japan, which is a bit less than the leading buyer, the USA (19%).
But in the late 1980s – early 1990s, the global barricade that China and Japan found themselves on the same side of suddenly fell down. The following can be described with the lyrics of a famous song: “Is it time to go our separate ways [regarding the international political process].”
Gradual conversion of the economic power into the political one and the self-esteem of both countries expedited their gradual distancing, as now they became the participants of a new game, the Post-Cold War Period. Moreover, their objectives were becoming increasingly conflicting.
Old sores of various importance that used to be ignored began to resurface. For instance, the issue of the control over the 5 uninhabited Senkaku /Diaoyu islands (with the total area of slightly more than 5 square kilometres) located in the East China Sea became critical.
The issue was exacerbated by one assessment report made by the UN (dating back to the late 1960s) on the alleged presence of huge hydrocarbon deposits under the bottom of the sea near the islands.
It would be wrong to say that, given the new situation, the Treaty of 1978 was forgotten altogether. It was mentioned occasionally, mainly in connection with certain round figure anniversaries. However, it looked rather like polite nods between 2 neighbours who do not exactly see eye to eye with each other suddenly bumping into one another on the staircase.
In autumn 2012, the situation almost became uncontrollable when the Japanese government (the de facto owner of the archipelago) purchased 3 of the 5 aforementioned islands from “a certain individual.” Apart from the maritime incidents with the participation of the coastal guard ships of both countries, a wave of attacks on Japanese-owned enterprises shook the Chinese territory.
De facto, the official relations froze for several years. Until the very end of 2016 when the main player (represented by the new US Administration) showed signs of willingness to sharply decrease its involvement in the global political game (or to abandon it altogether). All the other key participants began to exchange glances in confusion trying to find the answer to the question: what are we going to do now?
However, it seems, 2 of them, namely China and Japan, are switching from the game of staring to restoring mutual confidence in the bilateral relations sphere putting aside the relatively unimportant issues.
Similar approaches to the format of their relations in the international trade and economy, the key issue of the contemporary Big Politics, serve as a basis for that. The former globalisation leader seems to renounce this role and aspire to bilateral resolution of issues with its key international partners. In the meantime, the latter, first and foremost China and Japan, are growing more determined in their effort towards comprehensive globalisation (not limited by trade and economy).
We have already noted various expressions of favourable attitude made by the Chinese and Japanese leaders over the recent months. Which is expedited by maintaining a positive political climate in general in the region (alas, there are strong reasons for adding the phrase “for the time being” to the previous optimistic sentence).
Among the expressions of the kind, we may note the aforementioned mutual congratulations on the 40th anniversary of signing the Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Which no longer look like the cold nods of angry neighbours that we had seen before. The neighbours of today raise their hats, exchange smiles and ask questions about the health and well-being of one another and their families.
Probably, the most vivid instance showing the improvement in the bilateral relations can be seen in the announcement made in August this year by the Toyota Motor Corp. on its intention to spend over $ 1 b on expanding its production capacities in China (by roughly 35%). It will enable to produce up to 1.7 m automobiles by 2021 (the Japanese auto giant currently produces around 700,000 automobiles per year).
Let us note that we are talking about the very same company that suffered most in 2012 as a result of the actions by the Chinese “patriots.”
The rapprochement process can reach its climax during the visit of the Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe scheduled for October this year. During the meeting with the Chinese leadership, specific issues of primary importance for the 2 countries’ bilateral relations will be discussed. First and foremost, in the sphere of trade and economy. In particular, the parties will probe into each other’s stance on various multilateral economic cooperation projects.
However, one of the indispensable prerequisites for further positive development of the relations between the 2 leading Asian states is Japan’s removing the old historical sore of the memory about the Nanking Massacre, which has more than once been discussed in the New Eastern Outlook.
The author of this article believes that during the planned visit of the Japanese Prime Minister (which can only be prevented by extraordinary events happening in the region), the latter will go to Nanking at last and remember the victims of the events that took place 80 years ago. Which will remove this extremely painful sore from the Japanese-Chinese relations. Let us remind you that, in May 2016, the same approach to the problem was used by the then US President Barack Obama regarding the memory of the atomic bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki by the US.
Finally, it is best to keep one’s spirit cool regarding the positive trend in the Japanese – Chinese relations (as well as in the Chinese – Indian ones). There is no way around (at least, in the near future) the fact that Japan is part of a military and political alliance with the US, which is the key geopolitical opponent of China.
Though, there is a certain improvement in the Japanese – Chinese military interaction. For instance, the issue of extending the pause in the actions performed by patrol ships up to 48 hours in cases of dangerous encounters in the disputed areas is currently under consideration. However, the results of the 2 countries focusing on one another regarding their military programme and activities would not just disappear into thin air.
Though, the main threat is that of another deterioration of the political climate in the region. In this respect, one cannot help feeling anxious about the Korean peninsula détente process slowing down, which manifested itself, in particular, in the announcement made by the US Defence Minister Jim Mattis on ending the halt in the joint military training with South Korea.
Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.