China's trade dispute with the United States is pushing it closer to Japan. It might not be easy, but Tokyo can no longer blindly depend on Washington, says DW's Frank Sieren.
Six years ago, there were angry demonstrations in front of the Japanese embassy in Beijing. Thousands of people were encouraged by China's Communist Party to demonstrate against the authorities in Tokyo. Bottles and stones were thrown, the odd Japanese flag was burned. The owners of sushi restaurants in the area called for peace by hanging pro-China banners in their windows.
Many Japanese companies had to close their Chinese branches temporarily to avoid arson attacks and plunder. The Chinese government, which does not usually voice its opinion openly, said that the protests were an "expression of patriotism."
The demonstrations had been triggered by Japan's decision to buy a group of uninhabited, yet disputed islands in the East China Sea. Both states lay claim to what are known the Senkaku Islands in Japan and the Diaoyu Islands in China.
Read more: Next stop in Trump's trade crusade: Japan
The uproar did not last long, however. In the end, it seemed the Chinese people had more pressing issues than Japan. This is truer than ever today. The Beijing police drive Japanese cars and many people go to Japan to shop. Within China, Japanese restaurants are popular and considered to be particularly hygienic in a country regularly plagued by food scandals.
A more relaxed tone
The Sino-Japanese conflict has almost disappeared from everyday life in China. Even at the political level the situation has calmed down, though there remain bones of contention. The island dispute is only one of them. Beijing's major reproach is that Japan's government has done little to atone for the crimes committed against the Chinese during the Second World War.
But protests these days remain contained. It has become standard for the Chinese media to get very agitated each time a high-ranking Japanese politician visits the Yasukuni shrine in central Tokyo, which commemorates over 2 million of Japan's war dead, including 14 war criminals prosecuted by the International Military Tribunal for the Far East. The reactions to a recent submarine exercise by Japan were also routine. The Japanese Defense Ministry said that the military drills southwest of the Scarborough Shoal, which is controlled by China, were to "improve strategic techniques." Beijing reacted by saying that Japan "should act cautiously and avoid doing anything that would harm regional peace and stability."
Since US President Donald Trump engaged half the world in a trade dispute and withdrew his country from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was supposed to serve as a counterweight to Beijing, Japan has been playing it safe to avoid provoking China unnecessarily. Beijing is also in a conciliatory mood. In May, Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang visited Japan — the first official trip by a high ranking Chinese politician in eight years. On October 23, Li's Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, is due in Beijing to commemorate 40 years since the conclusion of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People's Republic of China. They are expected to launch an "innovation dialogue" during a three-day meeting to discuss joint agricultural and infrastructure programs, as well as future technologies such as artificial intelligence and self-driving cars. Bilateral trade is growing fast: In 2017, Japanese exports to China increased by 20 percent and 35.2 percent of the goods that Japan has sold to other Asian states in 2018 so far have gone to China — a 10 percent increase over last year. Economic realities are gradually overshadowing political differences. The days when Japan did everything at the US' side to limit China's influence in Asia seem numbered.
Japan seeks new markets
Japan's $70 billion (€60 billion) trade deficit with the US is forcing it to seek economic alternatives. It has not escaped Trump's ire. The US president accused Japan of reaping the most benefits from the postwar global free trade system and called for "more of a reciprocal relationship." Tokyo knows that this does not bode well for future ties with Washington. Trump wants to renegotiate free trade deals to replace the TPP. He said this during his first week in office. Abe, who was recently re-elected leader of Japan's conservative LDP party, prefers multilateral agreements. Trump is proposing a 25 percent duty on Japanese imports, particularly cars. This would hit the Japanese economy very hard since 47 percent of Japanese cars and trucks are sold in the US.
Beijing for its part would like to redress the balance of its losses due to US tariffs by working more closely with Japan. The idea is to sell more agricultural products to Japan in future, for example. And thus China is becoming increasingly important for Japan. In 2017, exports to China accounted for a third of its GDP.
China wants to benefit from Japan's contacts
Beijing also wants to involve Japan in its New Silk Road infrastructure, including Thailand's Eastern Economic Corridor. In eastern Thailand, a gigantic, state-promoted economic zone is being developed with new deepwater ports, highways and high speed rail links and airports. Since Japan has long invested in Thailand, it has more experience and networks there than Beijing, which can be helpful. Tokyo could thus give a sign to Washington that there are alternatives.
If Trump really goes ahead with withdrawing US troops from South Korea as announced in Singapore earlier this year, the discussion about whether they should remain in Japan will once again come to the fore. There was some discontent that Japan played no role in the recent Singapore summit. This is another reason why the situation between Japan and China could de-escalate considerably. One positive, if unintentional, side effect of Trumpian politics is that Asian states are demonstrating they can handle their conflicts without the West.
Frank Sieren has lived in Beijing for over 20 years.