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China's Rise
Smile North, Kick South?

Even as China fortifies its artificial islands in support of its nine-dash line ambitions in the south, it is smoothing out relations in the north. The Wall Street Journal reports:

Japan and China confirmed Wednesday that they would hold a trilateral summit including South Korea, in the latest sign of improving ties between Tokyo and Beijing.

The summit among Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and South Korean President Park Geun-hye is expected to take place in Seoul later this month or early next month.

The meeting was discussed during talks Wednesday between Mr. Abe and visiting Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, a senior official in charge of diplomatic policy.

Why the détente? The economic slowdown has China worried, and Japanese investment is a major factor in China’s economy. Continued hostility between the two countries would drive more of that investment to other nations. Another cause of this move towards some sort of rapprochement is that China moved too quickly in Asia, assuming that the financial crisis of 2008-2009 was a geopolitical earthquake that had permanently reduced American power. And, finally, China was blinded by its own success, assuming that its economic growth would continue to transform it rapidly into an irresistible force in Asia.

China got ahead of itself, and Beijing found that it had both ignited a furious reaction in Japan and frightened its southern neighbors. China’s assertiveness inadvertently provoked the development of an anti-Chinese coalition stretching from Japan to India, backed by the U.S. Now, the country appears to be taking a more realistic view of its powers and limits. Beijing is looking to cool the most damaging tensions in Asia, and perhaps to weaken the links among the maritime powers. A softer approach to Japan will appeal to Japanese businesses worried about their own problems with slow growth, and perhaps also undercut the more militaristic foreign policy pursued by Prime Minister Abe.

But that is not quite the same as a return to the “peaceful rise” policy of Deng Xiaoping. China continues to pressure its weaker southern neighbors by developing its military positions in international waters (claimed by China) in the South China Sea. And in reality, as Tokyo certainly understands, this is also a major threat to Japan. The South China Sea includes trade routes on which Japan depends for access to both markets and raw materials (like Middle Eastern oil). Chinese control over this waterway would be a foot on Japan’s throat.

Despite that, it will be harder for Abe and those around him to continue to push against Japan’s still-strong pacifist tradition when the bilateral relationship looks warm—and yet from Abe’s point of view also that thaw is actually welcome. Not only does he need improved ties to help Japan’s struggling economy; he also benefits from the reality that Japan has faced China down and lived to tell the tale. Japan made no concessions to China, strengthened U.S. ties in defense and trade, and raised its regional profile—and China is now seeking warmer relations. An example of China’s new approach: Plans for the trilateral summit are moving forward even after a four-day trip to Tokyo by Tsai Ing-wen, the likely next president of Taiwan and the chairwoman of the pro-independence, anti-Beijing DPP. All of this helps Abe.

China could transform the nature of Pacific politics if it took steps in the south similar to the ones it is taking in the north, but so far there is not much sign of this happening. And however this plays out, don’t forget: A more cooperative China makes Asia less desperate for U.S. assistance.

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  • Dhako

    Walter,

    I am afraid, the alternative explanation, which is closer to truth is that, Japan have reached the limit of it’s muscle-flexing, since, Abe knows that ever since he had decided to start his dalliance with Japan’s ghost, China had effectively freeze Japanese investment (and more crucially) Japanese’s companies access to China.

    This coupled with the ever-warming relation between South Korea and China, it was evident that, Japan have decided to see if there could be some sort of back-door entry into quasi-alliance between S/Korea and Japan. Moreover, this meeting was actually intended originally to be bilateral meeting between President Park and President Xi Jinping,

    Hence, it was actually Prime-Minister Abe who requested to attend the meeting, and therefore make this as a trilateral get-together between the three leaders. Furthermore, China still is building her islands in the south China sea, despite the fact Japan and Philippines have had a largely PR-driven campaign against.

    And, yet, without China not stopping for one moment her island-building, it’s Prime-Minister Abe, who decided to swallow his pride and accept to come to a meeting while at the same time leaving the Philippines in the lurch, since, it was Shinzo Abe who encouraged the Philippines to make ruckus in the hope that the Americans can be rope-in the to the trap of the SCS,. But, since, China didn’t paid any attention for the Pentagon’s bluster in regards to South China Sea, it seems that, Prime-Minster Abe, who have decided that, it’s best to cut a new “understanding” with President Jinping, in which the up-shot will be, that, Philippines will be left to hold the bag in the South-China-Sea.

    And, also, as a clincher of this argument, recall that the White-House is busily back-tracking from their original assertion of showing force in South-China-Sea, which in turn, came about after the realization that China will not back down in this issue. And also, Obama’s White House needs President Xi Jinping’s cooperation in the climate negotiation in the Paris climate meeting; as well as the faint hope in which Obama still nurtures when it comes to China and US, completing the “Bilateral Investment Treaty” (BIT) before Obama leaves office, which in turn will cap his legacy with another foreign policy achievement (as he sees it).

    And, finally, Japan is beginning to notice how the TPP is unlikely to pass this Congress in this election season in the US (or at least the remainder of the Obama’s presidency); and, knowing that the Chinese is not so constitutionally constrained when it comes to her intended regional free trade agreement (FTA), then, it will be easier for China to develop that FTA much more reliable than the TPP, which is contingent on the US’s polarized politics.

    And, of course, the Chinese free trade is call the The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is a FTA negotiation that has been developed among 16 countries, namely the 10 members of ASEAN (Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and VietNam) and the six countries with which ASEAN has existing Free Trade Agreements (FTAs), such as: Australia, China, India, Japan, Korea, and New Zealand.

    In conclusion, it’s Abe to certain extend who realized, strategically, he had bet the wrong horse where America’s political dysfunctional house when it comes dealing with China.

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