Japan’s historic relations with China are marked by negativity, but in spite of this, in the modern era China seeks to turn a new page on Sino-Japanese relations and engage in a co-equal economic partnership within the framework of Belt and Road centred cooperative measures. Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying has stated,
“China is implementing a new round of opening-up measures at the moment. This will no doubt bring many more opportunities and bigger prospects for China-Japan economic and trade cooperation”.
This statement was made days prior to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe’s visit to China where for the first time in seven years, a Sino-Japanese leadership meeting will take place on Chinese soil. As two major north-east Asian economies, mutual cooperation would benefit both countries that have thus far tended to fall into the trap of competition in areas ranging from target export markets to free trade agreements and geopolitical alignments. While Japan envisages its geopolitical/geo-economic role as part of the so-called ‘Quad’ grouping of itself, India, the United States and Australia while Japan is also part of the Indo-Japanese Asia-Africa Growth Corridor, it has never been Beijing’s desire to see trans-continental trading projects such as the Asia-Africa Growth Corridor act as rivals to the Beijing spearheaded Belt and Road initiative. Thus, while nations like Japan and India tend to act in a reactive manner and in so doing are taking a necessarily competitive stance vis-a-vis China, for the Chinese themselves, the penultimate goal of Belt and Road is to work cooperatively with other nations on the basis of mutual respect in order to harmonise trading and development projects throughout the wider Afro-Eurasian space. Put simply, China wants to cooperate with everyone rather than negatively compete with anyone.
China’s all-weather partner Pakistan recently hinted at integrating the Indian-Iranian-Azerbaijani-Russian North-South Transport Corridor into Belt and Road when Saeed Khan Mohmand, Islamabad’s Ambassador in Baku alluded to the win-win benefits of multi-transport corridor inter-connectivity during a statement made in March of this year in Azerbaijan.
With relations between China and Vietnam improving within the context of joint ASEAN-Chinese military cooperation, while Chinese President Xi has sent fraternal greetings to Vietnam’s new President Nguyen Phu Trong, it remains China’s goal to likewise enhance cooperation with both India and Japan at a time when both traditional regional “rivals” to China are being subjected to many of the same tariff pressures from Washington as is Beijing.
While Japan’s pacifist constitution was designed to create an atmosphere of trust and security in the region, Japan’s traditionally insular economic model has caused prolonged economic stagnation in the wealthy nation. At a time when Prime Minister Abe has finally taken advice that Singapore’s founder Lee Kuan Yew offered to Japan in the late 1980s and is now seeking to open Japan’s borders to foreigners with skills and high level talent it would logically follow that Japan should also open its markets to freer trading arrangements with China while also working with rather than against China in logistical connectivity initiatives with mutual trading partners.
While cooperation in the fields of trade and global connectivity between China and Japan are long overdue from Beijing’s perspective, the realities of America’s unilateral protectionist policies have naturally forced both Japan and India to reconsider their de-facto role as China’s “rivals” during an age where the US market is becoming a less welcoming export destination for goods produced throughout multiple Asian nations.
While China has clearly learned from Japan’s economic mistakes of the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly where maintaining a fully independent monetary policy is concerned, it is high time for Japan to re-think the lessons derived from its own difficult experiences in the late 20th century, especially given the fact that trends towards economic openness throughout the wider Afro-Eurasian space are rapidly becoming the rule rather than the exception.
A more transparent cooperation based win-win relationship between Beijing and Tokyo would help not only to erase the lingering ghosts of the past but would help to strengthen the economic prospects of both countries as well as their partners in the short and medium term. Beyond this, in adopting a pan-Asian mentality to economic needs rather than an entrenched Trump style position of economic-nationalism (which Trump himself largely borrowed from Japan), a new period of peace through enhanced prosperity could blossom throughout Asia. Furthermore, if Japan were to finally pursue economic openness with China and others, it would motivate India to consider doing the same at a time when in spite of India’s growing military partnership with Washington, the White House has refused to relieve India of tariff pressures.
Japan’s long serving Prime Minister has long been regarded as a man deeply concerned with forming a legacy that will leave a lasting mark on Japanese society. While known as a hawk, the best legacy Abe could leave his people is one of economic harmonisation with Japan’s important neighbours. This week’s meeting will therefore represent a test of how far Abe is willing to go to make the economic reforms necessary to prioritise bilateral trust over unilateral caution and a spirit of Asian forward thinking over 20th century style economic nationalism.