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.