China’s Unlikely Ally

Written by: William Keenan

When listing Chinese allies, certain countries come to mind: Russia, North Korea, and countries within the European Union, to name a few. One name that is not mentioned? Japan, with reason. Over the years, China and Japan have fought two Sino-Japanese wars, dealt with territorial disputes, and have a general mutual hatred that runs deep. However, the dawn of a new age of Japanese and Chinese relations may be on the horizon. Chinese President Xi Jinping invited Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing to discuss various joint ventures, including the Belt and Road Initiative, originally proposed by China in 2013. 

The Belt and Road Initiative is the most ambitious Chinese foreign policy venture under President Jinping. The initiative aims to strengthen infrastructure, trade, and investment connections between China and 65 other countries; linking China to the Middle East, Central and Southeast Asia, and on to Europe, using a belt of land corridors and a road of maritime travel. The countries involved collectively account for over “30% of global GDP, 62% of population, and 75% of known energy reserves”. What was once an initiative the Chinese felt they could conquer alone, has been delayed due to the ongoing trade war with the United States and resistance both abroad and at home — causing costly social and political issues.

The Chinese economy has been hit hardest by the ongoing trade war with the United States, with Chinese stocks plunging and companies reeling, leading to a stalemate regarding the Belt and Road Initiative. Further leading China to thaw talks with Japan, is the evolving relationship between Japan and the United States. Japan has forged tighter connections with the United States as of late, including on trade, the containment of North Korea, and other regional security matters as well. Perhaps a combination of these issues left China no other choice but to extend an olive branch to their third biggest trading partner and neighbor or suffer the consequences and realities of isolation and a failed policy initiative. Japan partnering with the US on a larger number of issues could create a larger economic effect than is already present. Overall, it is clear to see what the Chinese gain from better relations, but what do the Japanese have to gain? 

By agreeing to thaw relations and cooperate on the Belt and Road Initiative, the Japanese are able to gain wider access to Chinese, European and Middle Eastern markets, expanding its economy, global reach, and influence while also momentarily halting worries about the dissolution of United States participation and focus in the Indo-Pacific region. US President Donald Trump has shown a hatred and willingness to nix multilateral trade agreements, including the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) which Japan was heavily involved with. Japan, conceivably, does not want to get burned again. By hedging their bets and aligning with the Chinese, they have economic and political relations should Trump pull out of the region. Larger access to the Chinese and Asian markets are an opportunity that Prime Minister Abe cannot pass up. These markets offer future stability should the US role in the region diminish. Participation in the initiative also closely aligns with Abe’s Free and Open Indo-Pacific Strategy which seeks to “improve connectivity between Asia and Africa…and promote stability and prosperity of the region as a whole.” Lastly, Japan can view this initiative as part of Jinping’s larger strategy to broaden its regional influence and leverage. With all Asian trade flowing through China, the Chinese can control markets and other nations. Perhaps Japan realizes this and wants to counteract by joining in the agreement. 

Whatever the reason may be, Japan and China have seemingly agreed to reset relations and work together. Whether or not the Belt and Road Initiative is successful or not is uncertain but what is clear is that Japanese and Chinese relations have changed, both for the present, and the future.