After Abe’s visit to China, the two nations also agreed to work together in third countries. Like India and China, who are currently collaborating to train Afghan diplomats together, Japan and China agreed to build a connectivity project in Thailand. A planned rail project, sources said, may not go through, but a road project is on track, which will be a first.
The lowering of official tensions between the two sides is reminiscent to many Japanese officials of the Modi-Xi Wuhan summit in early 2018. Both officials and strategic analysts in Tokyo agree that US-China trade tensions and Washington’s tough line on China have been major contributing factors to China’s changed stance. A Japanese foreign ministry official said, “a few years ago there were no handshakes, no dialogue, only demarches.” China, he said, softened its line because of several reasons. One of them being “they realised PM Abe is here to stay, so it was better to deal with him.”
Noted China analyst Akio Takahara of Tokyo University told TOI, Xi’s outreach to Japan also showed he had consolidated power within the party leadership, after some push back before the 19th party congress. From 2013, US-China relations became strained, particularly owing to Beijing’s territorial claims on South China Sea. The US, he observed, was the first to stop referring to the US-China relationship as a “great power relationship”.
Ryo Sahashi of Kanagawa University took a slightly different view. He said Abe had been wanting to repair the China relationship for a while. “He sent Toshihiro Nikai and Hiroshi Imai, two very powerful politicians to represent Japan at the BRI summit in Beijing in May 2017.” China responded in 2018, among other things, by lifting an embargo on Japanese food exports, dialling down nationalist rhetoric on historical anniversarsaries etc.
Trump’s stand on China added enormous pressure on China, building an uncertain international environment. In addition, Beijing wanted the departing Japanese companies and their investments to return to China as US’ tech-trade measures began to bite. “At the popular level,” a government official explained, “more Chinese tourists started to come to Japan, between 7-8 million a year. All of them returned with a different popular narrative about Japan.” However, the most recent Genron survey (the only private study of popular attitudes of Japanese and Chinese people) observed that that the average Japanese has a lower opinion of China than the average Chinese person about Japan. Takahara explained, “The reasons range from China’s aggressive behaviour in the Senkaku Islands; a growing realisation that China does not play by international rules and China’s continued criticism of Japan that has had a negative impact among the Japanese.”