Potentially one of the biggest stories of the month hit this morning: China and Japan seem to be figuring out a way to de-escalate tensions in the Pacific, setting up the possibility of an important meeting between Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe at the APEC meeting next week in Beijing. The Wall Street Journal‘s has some of the early details:
Beijing has wanted Tokyo to acknowledge the existence of a dispute over the group of East China Sea islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China. Tokyo has insisted its sovereignty over the islands is indisputable. On Friday, the two sides said they agreed to acknowledge differing views on the matter.“The four-point consensus basically sets up a platform for the two leaders to meet next week,” said Zhu Feng, a professor of international relations at Peking University. “A bilateral meeting would be a useful, positive gesture—it would remove certain diplomatic barriers and provide a platform for future talks.”Japanese officials also said the two sides agreed to set up an emergency mechanism to prevent maritime incidents. The officials said Beijing and Tokyo would gradually resume talks on political, diplomatic and security issues. Mr. Abe had called for the resumption of talks to set up such a mechanism.
China seems to have realized that the policy of accelerating confrontation in the Pacific was harming its interest and has decided to return to a less confrontational approach—perhaps something akin to the “peaceful rise” foreign policy of Deng Xiaoping. This wouldn’t mean, of course, that China has given up its great power ambitions, but it could be a sign that China realizes that it has overreached for now and must postpone the day when it challenges the status quo head-on.This does not mean China has embraced the U.S. or the U.S. vision for the 21st century. China is still a rising power that will not accept the status quo in East Asia, and that still resents the unique American global power system. But having considered the balance of forces—which very much includes the presence of a newly assertive Japan—it appears to have opted for a calmer, quieter and less direct approach that secures its short term economic and political interests without in any way sacrificing its long term goals. Therefore, we should not expect to see a drop in China’s military buildup or a profound shift of policy on issues like intellectual property rights and cyber espionage, hacking and competition.And it’s not just military calculus at play here. Economics has been as important a factor as anything else. China was as rattled by the shift of Japanese investment away from China as by anything the U.S. or Japan were doing in the military realm. With growth slowing at home, China does not want to drive away major investors by letting international relations deteriorate to a point of no return.The U.S. midterms and the gradual swing of the American public opinion pendulum back toward a more assertive foreign policy probably also plays some role in Beijing’s calculations. An atmosphere of global crisis intensifies conservative foreign policy instincts in counties like Japan, India, Australia, and the U.S. The brilliance of Deng Xiaoping’s quiet rise policy was that by avoiding visible quarrels with its neighbors, China could continue to build its military and technological capacity as its economy grew without triggering a regional political crisis before China was ready to face one. The more reckless and aggressive Chinese stance since the 2008 financial crisis, which led many Chinese observers to write premature obituaries for the era of American power, has backfired, and China is now facing exactly the kinds of constraints and difficulties Deng wanted to avoid.It also means that China, again for now, will not be rushing to Putin’s aid. Russia has set itself on a course of open defiance of the status quo; China seems to have decided not to pile on, but to enjoy the world order and grow richer. We are likely to see other signs of this in Russia-China relations going forward. China will look for economic good deals and take advantage where possible of Russia’s diplomatic isolation and the sanctions against it to buy Russian raw materials at attractive prices, but it probably won’t be signing up for any anti-world order grand battles.If this trend continues, it will prove to be a sensible and pragmatic decision by the Chinese. It is also a rare and important piece of good news for the Obama administration. For now at least, it looks as if the world’s second greatest power is pulling back from the idea of a global challenge to the U.S. That leaves Putin very much out on a limb and significantly improves the West’s chances of tightening the screws on Russia over the medium to long term and forcing it back into compliance with basic international norms about invading neighbors. It also gives the U.S. a freer hand to deal with the mess in the Middle East, where China, unlike Russia but like the U.S., wants peace, stability, and an ample and secure flow of cheap oil.The pivot to Asia, incomplete as it has been, backed by Abe’s shift to a more active Japanese posture and the evident support for the U.S. position in the most important countries of the region, seems to be working.