Is Japan warming up to Xi Jinping’s grandiose infrastructure ambitions? That is the impression conveyed by Nippon Express, the major Japanese firm that is taping into China’s Belt and Road Initiative via a joint rail project with Kazakhstan. From the Nikkei Asia Review:
Nippon Express and Kazakhstan’s state railway company have teamed up to start carrying cargo from China’s east coast, through Central Asia and on to Europe.
The Eurasian rail route is likely to benefit from China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a reimagination of Silk Road trade routes.
Nippon Express’s move will likely prompt Japanese companies to seek business opportunities along the route. The transportation company and Kazakhstan Temir Zholy plan to start the cargo service in 2018. Trains will begin their journeys from Lianyungang, a prefecture-level city in China’s eastern Jiangsu Province.
One project does not a trend make, but there are other signs that Japanese firms are eyeing new opportunities in China’s infrastructure push. Earlier this summer, Japan’s Chamber of Commerce and Industry set up shop with a “liaison council” in China designed to probe new joint ventures under the BRI framework. Japanese megabanks want in, too, and have been scouting out projects for their client companies that can be incorporated under the Belt and Road rubric.
The Japanese business community’s interest in Belt and Road contrasts with the government’s longstanding skepticism. Tokyo has long been concerned about Beijing’s push to build the next generation of Asian infrastructure, seeing the Belt and Road as a competitor’s devious design to dominate the continent through debt. For similar reasons (and due to U.S. pressure), Japan resisted joining China’s nascent development bank when it launched in 2014. And in several instances right up to the present, Tokyo has been a direct competitor with Beijing, as both pursue the rights to various Asian ports and try to outbid each other for influence in Asia and beyond.
Lately, though, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has begun subtly changing his tune. In July, he offered an opening by saying that Japan was willing to cooperate with Belt and Road projects as long as the procurement process was transparent and fair and the projects were responsibly financed. And he has recently sent a number of conciliatory signals to Beijing that suggest an improvement in relations, as The Hindu notes:
In tune with the commercial opportunities offered by the BRI, Japan is sending important political signals for reviving ties with Beijing. On Thursday Mr. Abe paid a surprise visit at a ceremony marking China’s National Day — a step that no Japanese Prime Minister has taken in the last 15 years.
Besides, no Japanese Minister on August 15 — the day marking Japan’s surrender in World War II visited the Yasukuni shrine. The visit to the shrine that commemorates the Japanese war-dead has been a point of regular friction between China and Japan.
In reciprocation, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi — a former ambassador to Tokyo — said in a follow-up meeting with the Japanese ambassador to China, Yokoi Yutaka that, “We look forward to more good news on China-Japan relations rather than bad news after the good news.”
For two strategic rivals with a traumatic wartime history, those warm words and symbolic gestures are far from perfunctory. Even as Japan deepens its development partnerships with Chinese rivals like India, it seems intent on bolstering friendly economic ties with Beijing.
One can consider this political bet-hedging, or strictly business. But if Beijing gets major Japanese buy-in to the Belt and Road, that fact will reverberate in countries like India that see the program as little more than Chinese economic imperialism.