Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a rare trip to China this week hoping improved relations will lead to new economic partnerships, as the two countries come under US pressure on trade.
The visit is the first by a Japanese premier since 2011 and is part of a years-long process of repairing ties in the wake of a disastrous falling-out in 2012, when Tokyo “nationalised” disputed islands claimed by Beijing.
The incident prompted anti-Japanese riots in China, and kicked off a frosty spell that has only gradually and recently begun to thaw.
Since an awkward 2014 encounter between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of a summit, there have been ministerial visits by both sides and a softening of rhetoric.
But Abe’s trip will be a test of how far the two countries have come, and the need for progress is all the more urgent as US President Donald Trump levies tariffs and rattles sabres on trade with both China and Japan.
“The trade war with the US seems like it’s helping bring them together a bit,” said Kristin Vekasi, assistant professor of political science at the University of Maine, and an expert on Japan-China ties.
“In that sense, they’re actually on the same side... and if Japan leans away from the US because of decreased economic opportunities, there’s a potential for closer ties with China,” she said.
Belt and Road Initiative
The two leaders are likely to focus on a range of potential deals, including joint investments in infrastructure in regional nations including Indonesia and the Philippines.
Abe has signalled some interest in China’s massive “Belt and Road Initiative”, which funds major infrastructure work, but experts said a concrete deal on Japanese participation was unlikely for now.
Both sides are keen to improve economic cooperation, with Japanese business eager for increased access to China’s massive market, and Beijing interested in Japanese technology and corporate knowhow.
“Japan and China have really nicely complementary economies, and they can benefit hugely from having closer trade and investment ties,” Vekasi said.
“They’ll try and bring home some economic tangibles. That’s generally where they’ve been able to successfully cooperate in the past.”
The two leaders may find less common ground outside of the economic realm, with tensions lingering over territorial issues.
Just days before Abe’s trip, Tokyo lodged an official complaint after Chinese ships cruised around the disputed islands that Tokyo calls the Senkaku and Beijing labels the Diaoyu islands.
And in September, Japan carried out its first submarine drills in the disputed South China Sea.
Japan does not border the South China Sea but has expressed concern about Chinese military activity there.
Cooperation and confrontation
Abe and Xi are likely to simply avoid those thornier issues, said Kazuyuki Suwa, a professor of political science at the University of Shizuoka.
“Neither side will make any compromises... They will say what they need to say, and won’t likely agree to go beyond that,” he told.
“The relationship is a mixture of cooperation and confrontation, and that will stay the same.”
Much of the meeting will be about optics, with both men looking for the symbolic boost that the summit will provide.
Abe will also be hoping to extract a pledge that China will make good on plans for Xi to pay a reciprocal visit to Japan next year.
If he succeeds, “that itself should be called one of the major achievements of this trip,” Suwa said.