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New Year Abe: under the sign of the Celestial Empire

Prime Minister of Japan opened the diplomatic season with anti-Chinese voyage

In the first diplomatic tour that began this year, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe visited Australia and three states of Southeast Asia — the Philippines, Indonesia and Vietnam — to strengthen economic and security ties with them in the light of the upcoming revision of US Asian policy by President Donald Trump. A fairly transparent goal of the January trip was also the desire to oppose, as indicated in Tokyo, China’s increasing maritime activity and increasing its military power in the waters of the South China Sea.


New Year Abe: under the sign of the Celestial Empire
Photo: Drop of Light / Shutterstock, Inc.

Valery Kistanov

Head of the Center for Japanese Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies
At the end of the New Year's journey during a press conference in Hanoi, Shinzo Abe stated that he had come to an agreement with the leaders of the four countries on the importance of the rule of law and freedom of navigation. It's no secret that the Japanese prime minister meant building China's military presence in the disputed territories in the sea. The statement did not pass by Beijing, who, through the mouth of his Foreign Ministry spokesman, stated that Abe had "ulterior motives" in highlighting the problem of the South China Sea during his trip and "spared no efforts and was looking for any available means to sow discord."

From the time he returned to the Prime Minister's chair in 2012, Shinzo Abe spent much of his diplomatic efforts to form an anti-China network of countries around China that could restrain a growing power. This is taking place against the backdrop of cooling relations of Tokyo itself with Beijing, which from time to time are heated because of their territorial dispute in the East China Sea. In it, an apple of discord is the group of uninhabited islets of Senkaku (in Chinese, Diaoyu). They are controlled by Japan, but China considers them their own, demands to return and to reinforce requirements regularly sends patrol ships to the waters around the islets.

However, at the same time, the Abe administration, in parallel with building the anti-Chinese coalition in the Pacific, is persistently seeking the possibility of a substantial straightening of relations with Beijing - through constant dialogue at various levels and in various areas, such as security, cooperation in the economy and environmental protection.

The improvement of Japanese-Chinese relations is becoming even more important for Tokyo in the light of the uncertainty of the foreign policy course of the incoming American administration, Donald Trump. During the presidential campaign, before his inauguration on 20 January, Trump blamed Japan and China for America's trade and economic ills. The American politician also said that Tokyo should pay more to Washington for the presence of American troops on Japanese territory, and he himself is not obliged to adhere to the principle of "one China", recognizing Taiwan as part of mainland China. This principle was the basis of Washington's policy towards Beijing from the 70-ies of the last century. The statement of the American leader caused a sharply negative reaction from Beijing.

However, as Japanese analysts note, tense relations between the US and China are what Japan needs least of all in terms of both the economy and security. In their view, the Abe administration should strive for rapprochement with both Washington and Beijing to ease tensions in the US-China-Japan triangle and in the interests of stability in the Asia-Pacific region. Analysts recommend Abe unequivocally to convey this intention to Trump during their meeting scheduled for 10 February in Washington.



Japanese experts also strongly recommend Tokyo to reload its ties with Beijing. These ties deteriorated sharply after the Japanese government bought the disputed islands from a private owner, a Japanese citizen, in September 2012. Bilateral relations were turned towards improvement after the two countries reached a number of conciliation agreements over the territorial dispute in November 2014. This opened the way for a personal meeting between Shinzo Abe and the head of the PRC, Xi Jinping. Until then, the Chinese leader had essentially avoided summits with his Japanese counterpart. However, Japan-China relations in 2015 year, again rolled back - due to the start of construction of artificial islands by China in the South China Sea in territories that are challenged by the Philippines and Vietnam. In this conflict, Tokyo openly sided with Hanoi and Manila.

The situation worsened when, in July last year, the international arbitration court in The Hague in its ruling did not recognize the "historical rights" of China to the disputed waters of the South China Sea. A number of countries, including the United States and Japan, made recommendations to Beijing to recognize this decision. However, China resolutely dismissed these councils and demanded not to interfere in its internal affairs.

Tensions between Japan and China intensified last summer, when Chinese government vessels, despite diplomatic protests from Tokyo, made a number of visits to the sea around Senkaku (Diaoyu), which Japan considers its territorial waters.

In order to prevent unforeseen clashes between the Japanese Self-Defense Forces and the Chinese army, Tokyo and Beijing agreed in 2007 to establish a special mechanism for communication between the armed forces of both countries. However, until now the agreement remains unrealized - all because of the same territorial conflict around Senkaku (Diaoyu).

In September this year, the 45 anniversary of the restoration of diplomatic relations between Japan and China will be celebrated, thanks to which the normalization of their post-war relations took place in 1972. Judging by everything, the relations between Tokyo and Beijing need a second, this time informal, normalization. The third and second economies of the world are especially needed on the eve of turbulence, which seems to arise in the Asia-Pacific region in connection with the advent of the Trump era in US foreign policy.