Index > Briefing
Saturday, June 20, 2020
President Xi Jinping's Visit to Tokyo: Why It Matters

In 2019, ANBOUND used to argued multiple times about the significance of the Sino-Japanese relationship in the context of the degenerating U.S.-China relations. However, the global structure is getting even more unstable comparing to that time: Washington and Beijing have already stepped into a new Cold War; Europe has become increasingly independent in its foreign policy, and the domestic situation in Japan is also shifting. In the current status, it has been crystal clear for most people that the U.S.- China relationship would shape the world for the following several decades, whereas only a few understand that the key of this bilateral relationship is not itself, but the relationship between Beijing and Tokyo . If China and the U.S. are bringing uncertainties to this world, Tokyo is one of a few stabilizing factors left in today's international politics.

Of course, some still noticed this, and there are impulses inside and outside Japan to further alienate Beijing and Tokyo as well. Due to the impact of the Covid-19, the Hong Kong issue, and the continuation of the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, we can clearly observe a trend in Japan that believes the visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping to Japan is not likely to happen in 2020. The Asahi Shimbun recently published an article arguing the similar ideas, and it is echoing around in the senior level of Japan's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP). In this context, we saw another turning point of the geopolitical game in Asia.

An old colleague in ANBOUND, focusing on the geopolitics, once told me that "timing and grand-sight are all that matter in geopolitics. A small but accurate move actually decided the direction of many grand events." His words clearly carry much wisdom because, for example, the Diaoyu/Senkaku issue used to be a non-important matter when leaders in both countries jointly saw a strategic window in the late 1970s.

So, what is the situation between these two ancient neighbors now? The short answer is that they both face a period of "change."

Regarding China, after forty years of "Open and Reform," Beijing has found herself back into the beginning point: needs more technology, more capitals, more experiences, and even more wills in its continuing economic reforms (Of course, it is a different kind of shortage comparing to things in 1978), the only thing that China still has as an advantage in its economy is its market's space and potentials.

In terms of Japan, it also faces uncertainties about its future. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is going to retire in 2021, while in the meantime, China and the U.S. are heading against each other, which could destroy Japan along with their clash. Where is the future path for Japan in this uncertain time? Many decision-makers in Japan keep asking themselves. They care about geopolitics, not only because they are studious, but also because it literally impacts their lives and business.

As we all know, economic factors have been a crucial factor in the post-war-Japan policy, if not THE FACTORS. Japan has technologies, capitals, and experiences, and there are not many market spaces left for them in this world. In fact, based our experiences, there actually is an impulse in Japan's business world to further cooperate with China, not just for that this cooperation could be mutual-beneficial, it is also because that China and Japan are much more like each other in their cultural custom and ways of thinking. For example, Japan is a country of details. It goes into the bones of this nation. Westerners sometimes find themselves hard to understand this pursuit, but not Chinese, because they used to be the crazy at this as well. Furthermore, this unique character also means that Tokyo really needs an excellent persuasion before it decides to lean more toward Beijing than Washington, which is their current path.

First, as mentioned before, Japanese people care about details, and therefore they need far much more answers from China than merely the statement of the Chinese governments. Beijing has to respect and meet Tokyo's expectations. Questions like how China will treat Japan if Tokyo decided to shift its geopolitical focus, how commit China will be in this vision, what China will do to bring these two counties closer, has to be answered directly to Japanese decision-makers, perhaps multiple times.

Second, unlike most of the Western countries, Japan does understand the Chinese politics, which made them fully aware that many of the official statement does not really hold long enough in China and only the top leadership matters. This is why leader-diplomacy is crucial now as they need to hear the answers directly from the top Chinese leader before they, as preferred by China, change their path fundamentally. Indeed, as we used to argued that the leader-diplomacy could not be the silver bullet, but it is the beginning of everything.

In 2019, giving the trip of President Xi to Japan was basically a done-deal, ANBOUND argued that China needs to do more to secure the benign relationship between Beijing and Tokyo. We also brought a "1+3" model to depict the current world status (The one is America, the Three are China, Japan, and Germany), and argued that a "super-sovereignty solution for the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands". We actually believe the Sino-Japanese relationship is last and the most essential safety between a total discord world and the decisive point of the Chinese grand strategy.

However, as mentioned previously, things have been different in 2020. If we look around the possible candidate after PM Abe (Shigeru Ishiba, Toshihiro Nikai, Fumio Kishida, Toshimitsu Motegi, and Katsunobu Katō), most of them understand the strategy of PM Abe, which tries to strike a balance between Washington and Beijing, whereas it is also true that every one of them could move closer to the right and choose Washington in the future, especially considering the speed of the declining U.S.-Sino relations has gone faster than most anticipated . From the Chinese perspective, that would be the worst scenario they could ever imagine: facing two the most powerful countries singlehandedly at the same time.

Thus, the window is closing for China, and the way forward will not be easy. But if successful, President Xi's visit to Japan will serve as an anchoring point for Chinese "bright future". Beijing should and need to lock this tight. As my colleague said, geopolitics is just grand chess, and a small but accurate move could make all the differences.

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