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Why China needs to focus on Japan

George Sagris

On December 24, 2019, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang, and South Korean President Moon Jae-In met in Chengdu.

They discussed the increasingly provocative rhetoric from North Korea, as well as closer economic cooperation between the countries and the further promotion of free trade.

The trilateral framework is not limited to only security and economic issues. The neighbours seek collaboration in the areas of tourism, healthcare and disaster prevention.

Despite Japan’s current shaky relations with South Korea, their meeting reflected a more amicable tone. Shinzo Abe and Moon Jae-In know the benefits of working closely with China, and it is clearly in their national interests.

Now is the perfect time for China to capitalise and strengthen its ties with Japan.

For nearly 18 months, China and the US have been locked in a bitter trade war, which has seen tariffs of hundreds of billions of dollars imposed on the other’s goods.

Not only is this detrimental to China and the US, but it is also negatively affecting the world’s economy.

According to a report by the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development in December 2019, global trade and economic output stagnated this year, after a continual surge until the end of last year.

While not primarily due to the feuding between China and the US, the trade war is undoubtedly linked to the world economy’s overall stagnation.

Neither country is willing to budge – at least while Trump remains in power – and it is time for China to further collaborate with new bedfellows, away from the US.

Sino-Japanese relations are at record high levels. Their icy exchanges over wartime compensation and atonement have thawed, and they are now focusing on policies of mutual benefit.

Abe’s words reflected these sentiments.

‘I am willing to maintain close communication… to raise Sino-Japanese ties to a new level’.

According to Japanese officials, the trade war has resulted in deeper economic cooperation between the two countries, as well as increased people-to-people and cultural exchanges.

For over a century, close economic ties have developed between China and Japan, despite frequent negative political relations.

Now that ties are cordial, they must strike while the iron is hot. Economic cooperation achieved while feuding is nothing compared to what can be achieved when leaders are closely working together.

Xi Jinping is scheduled to visit Japan in Spring 2020. This will be the first official visit by a Chinese head of state since 2008.

This meeting is momentous, as it reflects the changing dynamic between the two leaders who – at least for now – are willing to put the politics of memory aside, in order to greatly benefit their countries.

It is during this visit that the two powers will intricately discuss their relationship for the next decade. These discussions have the potential to lay a global framework that will see Japan and China centre their cooperation on addressing international issues.

They will be creating a new major political document – the fifth of its kind – that will underpin the next decade of Sino-Japanese partnership.

The previous four documents, created in the same fashion, are considered to be the foundation of relations between the two countries.

The key to the success of this document will be through the use of inclusive language that effectively encapsulates the needs and wants of both parties, while not stepping on the other’s toes. The language used will be crucial in alleviating future disagreements.

Bilaterally, the neighbours should lead talks regarding denuclearisation of the Korean Penninsula and spearhead the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP).

To boost exports, Beijing is keen to conclude the RCEP talks which make up one-third of the world’s economy and half of the world’s population.

The US already spectacularly pulled out of a similar free-trade deal, and it is now up to the largest economies in Asia to see it through.

Implementing the RCEP would be a huge boon for China, offset the losses caused by the US trade war and complement their decade-long Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

Completing the RCEP would further legitimise China as an economic powerhouse, and through cooperating closely with Asia-Pacific states would help to promote ‘China’s peaceful rise’.

Beijing can also serve as a mediator between Abe and Jae-In, providing a forum for trilateral relations which will, in turn, promote dialogue between the two countries.

It is a win-win situation for each country. Both want to achieve denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula, and together they can overcome the failures and heavy-handedness of US policy.

China and Japan are intricately linked by history, and with their combined resources, they can usher in the new roaring 20s with a bang.

George Sagris is a journalist and Honours graduate in Japanese-Chinese politics based in Tokyo.


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