SGRA Kawaraban (Essay) in English
John Chuan-Tion Lim “New Characteristics of Japan-China Relations in the Post-COVID-19 Age”
In the year 2020, COVID-19 shook the world and threw the world systems into confusion
We are facing with the issue “the Post-COVID19”. In the process of solving the issue, the most important point for the world block or countries is how to adjust the relations with China. In this paper, I would like to focus on the relations between Japan and China in the age of “post-corona”.
In America, Donald Trump was inaugurated as the President in 2017 and took the national strategy “China containment”. Through the trade war and technological race, America has been pressing China and their relations deteriorated gradually. On the contrary, Japan and China have stepped, strangely enough, to the opposite direction “all-out restoration”. However, such “quasi-honeymoon” for two years came to the end by structural shock of the coronavirus pandemic.
◇From ”Honeymoon period” to “Quasi-honeymoon period”
When we look back the relations between Japan and China for half-century since the normalization of diplomatic relations in 1972, “honeymoon period” was only in the decade of the 1980s. In the decade of the 1990s, the relations was “sometimes good and sometimes bad” due to “historical issues”. In the decade of the 2010s, especially in 2012, Japan has nationalized “Senkaku Islands” (Diaoyutai Islands in Chinese) and the relations fell into inescapable and hair-trigger situations.
In November, 2014, Japan-China relations came to the turning point “A Thaw” narrowly. Two countries got the “essential common understanding on four points” and reopened their exchanges partly. However, China did not start the mechanism of mutual visits of their heads. In the year 2018, Japan conceded to soften their attitude toward Chinese policy “One Belt, One Road”. Afterward, China got the policy “getting back the Japan-China relations to the original orbit”.
The visit of the Premier Li Keqian in May 2018 shows that both countries have started their relations toward total recovery. Afterward, Prime Minister Abe visited China in October. However, Prime Minister Abe understood at that time that we can say “complete recovery of the relations between both countries” only when the heads of two countries visit each other after the President of the People’s Republic of China (CRC) Xi Jinping visits Japan as a national guest. In CRC, they regarded President Xi’s visit to Japan in April 2020 as important and expected to declare the coming of “new era of Japan-China relations” jointly. At the same time, China side have expected to announce “the 5th political document” which symbolize the new era of both countries at summit talks. The “Quasi-honeymoon period” which China took initiative reached to the climax.
◇The latent vulnerability in the friendly relationship between Japan and China
Improvement of the relations depend on the interests and strategic thinking of both countries. The reason why they could keep “quasi-honeymoon period” for these two years is the Chinese new strategy mainly. Actually, Japan did not cancel nationalization of the Senkaku islands and kept their defense capacity strengthening, including setting up of the National Self-Defense Force, in the area of “Nansei Shoto (the south-west islands)”
Amid such situation which Japan did not compromise in important issues, China like to restore the relations with Japan. As background of such Chinese attitude, there is no other reasons than a shock of the “New Cold-War between China and America”. By dividing the power of Japan and America which aim at shutting up China, China wanted to cut down American controlling power toward China.
In short, during these two years which we can call the “quasi-honeymoon period” after the decade of 1980s, both countries established their basic standpoints, “positive policy” in China and “wait-and-see policy” in Japan. However, there was a latent vulnerability in the “friendship between Japan and China” which came from the characteristics of “one-sided (not each other) direction”. We can find such vulnerability in the public opinion polls on the relations of both countries. Japanese NPO “Japanese Public Opinions“ and Chinese International Publication carried out together public opinion poll on the relations between Japan and China jointly in 2005. The poll of last October (before coronavirus epidemics) shows that 45.9% of Chinese have good impressions on Japan. This figure was the highest since 2005 when they started the poll. However, Japanese impression on China was “just returned to normal orbit” and we cannot say we reached “improvement”. The ratio which Japanese have “no-good” impression toward China was 84.7% and it was considerably high.
Actually, atmosphere of welcoming President Xi’s visit to Japan is not warmed up yet in Japan despite President Abe urged Xi’s visit as a national guest eagerly. It is important that unexpected pandemic of COVID-19 this year made China confused completely about their strategy toward Japan. At the same time, the base of “friendship between Japan and China”, which was vulnerable from the beginning, was shook in Japan.
◇Unrest of the base of “Friendship between Japan and China” due to the pandemic of COVID-19
First of all, Prime Minister Abe proposed “friendship between Japan and China” together with China in spite of America’s urging to promote the “suppressing China strategy” which was severe and speedy. Prime Minister Abe considered first friendly relations in economy between Japan and China beside his historical evaluation as a prime minister.
However, the Abe Government reconsidered economic relations with China because the pandemic of COVID-19 has started from China. On April 7, the Abe Government announced “Declaration of Emergency” and passed the budget for “Emergency economic measures”. And they appealed reorganization of supply chains which is on the verge of emergency due to COVID-19. They allocated 240 billion Yen, at the first clause of the budget, for shifting production lines from China to Japan or diversification of production basis to South-East Asia. Such movements are based on decentralization of risks.
Public opinions in Japan foresee Chinese economy after COVID-19 pessimistically and it will be impossible to have “V-shaped recovery” in China. In this point, it is different from Chinese public opinions which foresee the Chinese economy optimistically. Japanese economic circles, including “keidanren” (the Federation of Economic Organization) foresee the Chinese economy cautiously and Japanese public opinions are “adverse wind” apparently to Japanese economic circles which like to maintain close connections with China in foreign trades.
As to Chinese measures toward epidemics, Japanese views have been getting worse because of questions about “concealment of infectious diseases” and their “omissions” at initial stage or punishment of Dr. Li Weiliang. China invoked “big propaganda” to the world since March. However, such propaganda was interpreted by the mass media in Japan as recoveries of initial fiasco in epidemics. Japanese antipathy toward China has increased.
Furthermore, COVID-19 spread in Europe and the United States after March and the pandemic shock hit the United States. The government in Washington is trying to establish new policy “China bashing” which accuse China of responsibility of “concealment of infection diseases” and claimed compensation. It is not difficult to imagine the relations between America and China in the “post-corona period” would become slyer. Under such circumstances which “anti-China” steps by America are being accelerated, it will be inevitable that America would pressure Japanese “pro-China” policy and Washington may trigger toward Japan.
◇Japan-China relations in the Post-COVID-19 – “cool-Japan and hot-China”???
Under such new changes of the world in pandemic, Prime Minister Abe realized that it would be difficult to keep good friendships with China which he has tried to maintain keeping pace with China and has stopped to control carefully his ideological position and did not try to maintain Japan-China relations which have been vulnerable from the beginning. Being a contrast with expansion of antipathy to China, prevention of epidemics in Taiwan were highly evaluated in Japanese society. PM Abe, who has been the most “pro-Taiwan” since the decade of 1960, did not hide his dissatisfaction toward China. And he expressed his support to Taiwan which like to take part in the general meeting of the WHO as an observer.
Chinese Government began to take strong measures against Japan without any hesitation perceiving Japanese changes in its determinations which have been heading for improvement of Japan-China relations. On May 8, four vessels of China Coastal Guard Corps invaded Japanese sea area and pursued two Japanese fishing boats and Japan protested. Japanese Government announced that Chinese public vessels appeared around the Senkaku islands 41days continuously after May 24.
Summing up the above, “quasi-honeymoon period” which has been vulnerable from the beginning will end soon by pandemic of COVID-19. I personally think that President Xi’s visit to Japan during this autumn will not be possible in friendly circumstances after coronavirus.
However, if the relations between America and China would become severe, Chinese side may not abandon soon the strategy that they check the United States by winning over Japan. Therefore, even if Japanese feeling of friendship toward China would fall by COVID-19, Chinese side will not withdraw their Japanese policy, in a short period, which they regard it is getting back to normal orbit. Accordingly, Japan-China relations in the “post-corona period” which have a characteristic of “cool-Japan and hot-China” will continue in considerable long period.
John_Chuan-Tiong_Kim / Researcher of Japan General Research Center in Taiwan, Head of Japan Research Center in Wuhan University
Translated by Kazuo Kawamura
English checked by Sabina Koirala