Japan has initiated attempts to improve its relationship with China, accepting a visit from Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi on Tuesday.
The timing of Japan’s moves to expand economic partnership with China — including joining the world’s largest trade agreement, the China-led Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) — precedes the likely inauguration of Joe Biden as president of America, where he is expected to take more favorable policy positions towards the Communist Party than predecessor President Donald Trump.
Wang traveled to Tokyo to meet with his Japanese counterpart, Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi, to discuss various issues such as the Chinese coronavirus pandemic and Beijing’s growing influence across the region at large.
The talks are the first to take place between the two countries since Suga Yoshihide replaced Abe Shinzo as prime minister in September.
At a press conference held after Suga and Wang’s talks, the two men confirmed that they had agreed on a variety of issues, although the question of who controls the East China Sea remains unresolved. When asked about the issue, Wang complained that “Japanese fishing boats that do not have knowledge about the truth have repeatedly entered sensitive waters,” adding that China will “certainly continue to safeguard our sovereignty.”
The two diplomats nonetheless reaffirmed their intention to resume close economic and trade ties, which includes an agreement to “fast track” the resumption of business travel by the end of November.
Following the meeting, the Chinese state propaganda outlet Global Times noted that it took place against the “backdrop of the US’ intensified anti-China policy,” which it bemoaned had “brought great strategic uncertainty to Northeast Asia.”
The outlet quoted Chinese “expert” Yang Xiyu, who argued that the meeting “stabilized China-Japan relations, as the two countries have reached a crossroads at a time when rapidly deteriorating China-US relations have further complicated China-Japan relations.”
With Biden likely to take office in January, China has indicated that it expects a return to the bilateral relationship as it stood during the Obama era. The Obama administration, where Biden served as vice president, acted limitedly to combat China’s unfair trade practices, human rights violations, and the Chinese Communist Party’s long-term vision of regional and global hegemony.
As a result, the efforts of Japan’s centrist government to placate China may be in anticipation of a Biden presidency, given the country would have less political support to take on the threat of Beijing without steadfast U.S. backing.
Former Prime Minister Abe acted to strengthen Japan and reject any form of appeasement towards Beijing. Although Suga is a member of the same party as Abe, time will tell if an American retreat from confrontation occurs and if it will take Japan’s China policy in another direction.