Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wrapped up his three-day visit to China on October 27, first for a sitting Japanese prime minister to visit China in the last seven years. What does his visit mean for Sino-Japanese relations that have seen a thaw since last year? What impact will China-US trade tensions have on Japan's ties with China? Global Times (GT) reporter Sun Xiaobo talked with Akiko Yamanaka (Yamanaka), a senior diplomatic fellow of Cambridge Central Asia Forum, Cambridge University and former vice minister for foreign affairs of Japan, over the issues on the sidelines of the Eighth Beijing Xiangshan Forum held on October 24-26.
GT: Why did Prime Minister Abe come to visit China now?
Yamanaka: After Abe first became the prime minister in 2006, he came to China before visiting the US because he thought China was very important. Unfortunately his visit to the Yasukuni Shrine on December 26, 2013 made things fall apart. Since then it looks that Abe is pro-US rather than China. But it's actually not. So finally since last year the Japanese and Chinese governments started to consider the best opportunity for his visit. This year we celebrate the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two countries, and it is the best timing. Abe was re-elected (in September) to a third time as head of the Liberal Democratic Party and is going to have at least three more years as the prime minister. So he can do a lot more from now.
What's the best way to come? A lot of people gave their advice, but he decided to bring over 500 leaders from business, industrial and financial sectors. There were dozens of bilateral meetings held in Beijing and many agreements signed. This is the very beginning of the deepening of practical relations between Japan and China in various sectors. The two countries have a lot of things that remain to be discussed about, such as the territorial issue. However, as the wisdom of (former Chinese leaders) Deng Xiaoping and Zhou Enlai suggests, our two countries can put aside the territorial dispute and seek closer relations.
Many people said China started to welcome Japan because of the trade war with the US, but before that both China and Japan have prepared a lot. In January, Foreign Minister Taro Kono visited China. In April, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi came to visit Japan. Then Chinese Premier Li Keqiang came to visit Japan in May and had very positive discussion and agreement with Abe. Now it is Abe's visit. It's new days between Japan and China.
GT: What influence do you think China-US trade tensions can have on Japan's relations with China?
Yamanaka: Will the trade war between China and the US last? I don't think so. Of course they are now in a very difficult situation, but both of them have wisdom. After the US midterm elections finish (in November), though I don't know about the results, I think America will have to consider what is the best way with not only China, but also other partners. It looks like you win everything, but since the world community is so complicated and connected, you cannot live and win by yourself. So at the end of the day the US is going to suffer because American people have to pay a lot to buy things.
US President Donald Trump is not a stupid person, but a real businessman. He has shown very strong stance and called "America First". But Democrats and conservative Republicans in the US have always put America first. They didn't say that, but they do that. Only Trump says it in a loud voice. No matter which party is in office, their basic attitude is the same. I think by the end of this year, some kind of wisdom will prevail and ease the tension. I don't worry at all about that.
Japan is so closely related with the US and China. Japan is geographically and historically very close with China, but it was occupied by the US for nearly seven years and Okinawa for 27 years after World War II, so Japan has been influenced by both sides. We have to strike a balance, that's the only way.
GT: What opportunities for cooperation and challenges are there for China and Japan?
Yamanaka: There are several things for cooperation. First, China and Japan can do something together to support a third country. This is really new. Second, maritime dialogue mechanism is going to start so that we will avoid sudden clashes or accidents. Third, we can also seek to make progress on jointly developing natural resources in the East China Sea. Fourth, the two sides can accelerate the exchanges of young people.
Another thing is the elderly's social care. Japan has the knowhow and equipment that can be transferred to China. All these things will see more implementation from now, rather than just words.
We do have some problems to handle. First of all, the territorial issue, and militarily China still worries about Japan's reform of Self-Defense Force (SDF). We also need to cooperate with other militaries such as in peacekeeping operations. Chinese Navy and Japanese Maritime SDF have cooperated so well in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden. That's why I have proposed to have some other things like disaster prevention, rescue and management. Besides, in Northeast Asia, if we can set up a non-traditional military alliance as well as a community, it will be good for the Asian people. We don't know whether we can do that, but this is something we can challenge.
GT: What can an improved China-Japan relationship bring to Northeast Asia?
Yamanaka: Ministers of China, Japan and South Korea have met and said the three countries are going to collaborate on disaster management. I think it's very good. I propose that we build a community of Northeast Asia, certainly with China as the main player and Japan providing the knowhow, including South Korea, Mongolia and Russia. Hopefully North Korea will be a member in the near future. This group has to act together. There should also be good communication with the US so that damage on the Korean Peninsula caused during the Cold War is undone because the Peninsula has not been divided by the two nations, but by force.
GT: Do you think Japan will join in the Belt and Road initiative?
Yamanaka: We are happy to support in many ways the overland routes (Silk Road Economic Belt). But the sea lane (21st Century Maritime Silk Road) is more complicated due to the territorial issue. That's why it's difficult for us to say we are going to support or join the initiative. On the land, China and Japan can do a lot to support a third country, but not on the sea lane.