Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe’s just concluded three-day visit to China has dramatically changed the whole texture of China-Japan relations that have been seriously strained for quite some years. “Good vibes”, “positive gestures”, “red carpet receptions”, “grand state banquet” and “new start”, are some of the terminologies that international media used while covering this much-touted Beijing-yatra of Abe. Ties between Beijing and Tokyo were seriously soured in 2012 when Tokyo “nationalised” the Senkaku-Diaoyus, but now it seems that relations between the two countries are practically “back on track”. Abe, who was until recently being perceived as hawkish by the most of the decision makers in Beijing, did his best to appear as much “positive” as possible throughout his visit. “From competition to co-existence, Japan and China bilateral relations have entered a new phase. With President Xi Jinping, I would like to carve out a new era for China and Japan,” said a visibly buoyed Abe while addressing the media at the end of tour. This new mantra - from competition to co-existence- is very catchy and Abe is quite serious in adhering to it in the coming days. The trans-Pacific politics is in a transition phase where old rivalries are being replaced with new bondages and alliances.
A kind of pragmatism is quite visible in Tokyo and Beijing and this pragmatism is what is actually coercing the two sides to mend fences at this juncture. Shinzo Abe, for the last few years, he has been trying hard to crave a prominent role on the global arena. Abe has been able to make Japan a leader of global free trade – a surprise move from the prime minister of a country that has always been notorious for its barriers to imports. Apart from assuming the leadership of the Asian Trans-Pacific Partnership, Abe has also spearheaded the free trade agreement with the European Union, perhaps the largest such bilateral trade agreement in history that amounts to almost 30 percent of global GDP The string of successes in domestic and international affairs has heartened Abe to ignore the mounting pressure of the simmering domestic scandals. He has been successful enough to not only control the power brokers within his fractionated LDP but also influence the public opinion.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had planned to visit Europe and the Middle East in last July that would include a signing ceremony for a free trade deal between Japan and the European Union. Unfortunately, the record-setting rainfalls and floods in western Japan forced him to cancel his trip to Europe and the Middle East. But his brimming eagerness compelled him to resume his foreign trips as soon as the situation is controlled in the flood-affected territories – giving the impression that he is too confident about his strong political base at home and now he wants to venture outside - and inside - the boundaries of the Asia-Pacific region to claim a share in global leadership. At the same time, the Chinese leadership is equally eager to bolster ties with Japan, the third largest economy of the world. With Chinese President Xi Jinping facing enormous trade-related compulsions from across the Pacific – strain that Abe is also subject to, though indirectly, there was plenty reason for the two leaders to focus on economic positives rather than geostrategic and political negatives. That theme seems to have defined the trip. In the first bilateral meeting between the two leaders in China in seven years, Xi did everything possible to depict his warmness: the red carpet welcomes, a military parade for Abe, a grand reception marking the 40th anniversary of the Sino-Japan Friendship Treaty in the Great Hall of the People, and a banquet in the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse. Xi’s facial and body language in Abe’s presence was more buoyant than in other, recent interactions between the two regional rivals - a sharp contrast from their last encounter in 2014 when none of them could even display the faintest hint of a smile for an official snap. In view of the existing chronic tensions between the two countries over Pacific War history, the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands, freedom of movement in the South China Sea and North Korea policy – the extravagance of this reception was definitely a big plus.
The main takeaways for Abe from the tour appeared to be in the area of economic constancy and bilateral business transactions. With bilateral trade volume over $300 billion, both can’t afford to remain disengaged diplomatically for long. Ironically, Tokyo, which is militarily dependent upon the United States for its defence against both Chinese expansionism and North Korean belligerency, is in no position to ignore Beijing in the sphere of economic cooperation and business transactions. Despite the looming threats of Washington’s predatory trade manoeuvres, the two countries agreed on a $30-billion currency swap and on setting up a Yuan clearing bank in Japan. They also agreed to boost cooperation in securities markets including the listing of exchange-traded funds (ETFs), and the facilitation of smoother Customs clearance. More than 500 businessmen accompanied Abe and 52 deals worth $18 billion in third-party markets were confirmed - the flagship project being the redevelopment of an industrial park in Chonburi, Thailand, into a ‘smart city’. At the same time, Abe was able to get a positive nod from Xi for his visit to Tokyo in the coming months. So, the pragmatism has seeped into the trans-Pacific politics and, despite intense Sino-US trade rivalry, the emerging ground realities are pushing the regional powers to create a new equilibrium on the basis of trade and economy compulsions. No surprisingly, this successful diplomatic venture will also help Abe to consolidate his position in domestic politics.
The writer is a freelance columnist.