Diplomacy Amid Distrust: The Complexity of Sino-Japanese Relations in the Age of North Korea

 /  Dec. 7, 2017, 2:19 p.m.

APEC group photo

This month’s conference of the Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) in the Vietnamese city of Danang featured several high profile meetings, the most important of which occurred on the sidelines between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. In their discussion, the leaders agreed to work more closely together on North Korea, citing a crucial need for cooperation between the two superpowers if they are to remove the threat of a North Korean nuclear attack. The two leaders also discussed the possibility of cooperation in doing business in developing countries, and both hailed the meeting as a “fresh start” for Sino-Japanese relations. According to a statement released by the Xinhua news agency, Xi stated that stable relations were in both sides’ interest, and that they must make unremitting efforts to continue improving those ties. When asked about the statement, Abe said he felt “totally the same way.” That said, while spirits may be running high on the surface, with both leaders attempting to ease historical tensions, the implications of the meeting are far less clear-cut.

The meeting comes on the heels of significant political victories for both leaders at home. In a recent snap election called by Abe himself, his ruling coalition party won a clear majority with more than two-thirds of Parliament’s seats. The victory puts him on course to be post-war Japan’s longest-ever serving prime minister. Similarly, China’s ruling Communist Party recently introduced its new leadership, granting Xi another five years in power as General Secretary. Further, given the lack of an obvious successor, Xi could remain the head of China beyond 2022. The Communist Party also recently amended its constitution to insert “Xi Jinping Thought” as a guiding principle, elevating Xi to the same status as the country’s most influential figures, such as Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping.

While both leaders have been enjoying significant successes domestically, Sino-Japanese relations remain riddled with controversy. The most blatant sticking point concerns territorial disputes over exclusive economic zones (EEZs) in the East China Sea, as both believe they have a right to harvest the natural gas resources that exist in the sea’s approximately 40,000 nautical miles of disputed territory. Since 2008, both have been escalating their military activity in the region, triggering massive anti-Japan protests in China and vice-versa. Territorial disputes are not the only factor contributing to frosty relationship between the two, as Japanese war reparations and issues concerning Taiwan continue to incite much controversy in the region.

Xi and Abe are now showing that they are attempting to make a concerted effort to resolve these tensions. On September 28, Abe made a surprise appearance at China’s National Day at the Chinese Embassy in Tokyo, marking the first time in fifteen years that a sitting Prime Minister has attended such an event. In his remarks, Abe expressed a willingness to visit China in the near future and urged Xi to visit Japan as well. If Xi accepts this invitation, it would make it the first time Xi has visited Japan since he came to power in 2012. Next year marks the fortieth anniversary of the signing of the China-Japan Treaty of Peace and Friendship, which might be a main reason for the increase in friendly signals between the two. Whatever the case, when it comes to the situation with North Korea, it could not have come at a better time, as North Korea has recently reached significant milestones in its nuclear weapons development program. These include successfully test-firing its first intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) and reportedly developing its first hydrogen bomb.

For the past half century, China and North Korea have enjoyed close diplomatic relations with one another. According to the Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty signed in 1961, China is committed to immediately rendering military assistance to its ally against any foreign invasion, at least until 2021. That said, the recent deterioration of relations among the two countries, mainly concerning North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, makes it less and less likely that the treaty will be renewed. Moreover, with fewer Chinese citizens holding a favorable of North Korea than ever before—and constant pressure from the international community to take more of an aggressive role against Pyongyang—it is unlikely Xi will extend any sturdy olive branches to Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un in the future. Thus, China’s new partnership with Japan might present a nail in the coffin for North Korea’s alliance with the People’s Republic.

This will undoubtedly come as welcome news to Abe and much of the Japanese population, which is moving in an increasingly hardline direction. Ever since North Korea conducted its first successful nuclear test, Japan’s government has believed a possible nuclear attack to be an “imminent and critical” threat. In early March of this year, Japan held its first nuclear missile drill—one of the first countrywide drills to be conducted since World War II. Now, it seems that the tension between two countries has reached a new apex, with a majority of Japanese citizens saying they want their government to take military action against North Korea, instead of merely levying sanctions and engaging in diplomacy. This aggressive stance might partly be due to Japan being the only country in the world that has witnessed the horror of a nuclear attack first-hand, meaning that the population is far more wary of a similar tragedy happening in the future. Abe has obviously picked up on this sentiment, utilizing the North Korean situation as a means of increasing his popularity at home.

At this point, few know what the impact of this deal would be on North Korea. One prevailing prediction is that as China continues to withdraw economic and political support from Pyongyang and Japan takes a more militant approach, North Korea will become further isolated, eventually being forced to come to the negotiating table. However, many have been quick to point out that it was an already isolated North Korea that built an ICBM that has the ability to reach the United States. What’s more, there is also the worry that by putting the North Koreans so far on the defensive, it could compel them to make a preemptive strike in the name of a self-defense, thus kickstarting an armed conflict that would envelop the entire international community. Right now, all that can be done is to see what actions, if any, North Korea takes in response to the new partnership.  

When it comes to Sino-Japanese relations, the future seems just as uncertain. Although spirits may be running high now, it must be remembered that dialogue between the two countries has always been marked by brief warm peaks followed by long, fractious troughs. There were friendly moments in the 1970s and 1980s, followed by a similar normalization of relations in the 1990s and mid-2000s. The recent dip since then has been a long one and occurs when, for the first time ever, both are modernized, economic superpowers. Therefore, their inability to create long-term, balanced relations has broad implications not just for APEC, but for the greater international community. The recent meeting between Xi and Abe is a step in the right direction, but it has also brought them onto a tightrope plagued by territorial disputes, cultural disparities, and historical distrust. What remains to be seen is if they can both walk across without falling off.

Ajay Chopra is a Contributing Writer for The Gate. The image featured in this article is licensed under the creative commons and can be found here.

Ajay Chopra


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