【明報專訊】DURING Chinese president Xi Jinping's visit to Japan last week, it was, without doubt, his meeting with US president Donald Trump that received most of the attention. But last week also marked the first time Xi had set foot in Japan since he assumed the post of President of China in 2013. It was also the first Japan visit made by a Chinese leader in nine years. On the night when he arrived in Japan, he met with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and agreed to make a state visit as invited next year, signalling that relations between Japan and China are finally back on track having been at a low for years.
Relations between China and Japan had been strained for six years since the Japanese government "nationalised" the Diaoyu Islands (called the Senkaku Islands by Japan) in 2012. They began to improve only after the conclusion of the 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China in 2017 and the beginning of Xi's second term of presidency. Abe has been relatively active in repairing Japan's relations with China, as he has sought to meet with Xi on ten occasions. China, meanwhile, has been waiting for Japan to take concrete action to demonstrate its sincerity. The turning point came last year, when Japan changed its stance and expressed willingness to join the Belt and Road initiative. It was not until that happened that Sino‑Japanese relations made a real breakthrough.
The improvement in the relations between China and Japan is attributable to domestic factors in both countries as well as international ones. Abe, who is on the road to becoming the longest‑reigning Japanese prime minister after the Second World War, is faced with a bottleneck in his attempt to tackle the economic difficulties, at the same time trying to achieve the aim of amending the constitution. He desperately hopes to win popular approval with a diplomatic breakthrough. Furthermore, on the country's various diplomatic fronts, Japan is facing a lack of momentum in its relations with Russia, a lack of means to improve its relations with North Korea, the constant deterioration in its relations with South Korea, and difficulties in achieving a breakthrough in its relations with the US, Japan's only military ally. There is room for a breakthrough only in its relations with China, its biggest trading partner. This is the area on which Abe has worked particularly hard. The breakthroughs in Sino‑Japanese relations can help him accumulate diplomatic capital which he can use on the successful hosting of the G20 meetings, the victory in the upper‑house elections in July and the amendment of the constitution.
To Xi Jinping, he has seen his power further consolidated after the 19th National Congress, and is now facing few restrictions on his endeavour to achieve diplomatic breakthroughs. At a time of a major setback for the relations between China and the US and difficulties in making a breakthrough in its relations with Europe, the improvement of relations with Japan has become a doable option. Japan's diplomatic policies towards China seldom have an ideological tinge to them. After all, it was the first of the G7 nations to lift sanctions against China after the June Fourth Incident in 1989. Japan has kept a markedly lower profile than that of Europe and the US over the opposition to the amendment of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in Hong Kong.
It is the Trump administration that has been the biggest international factor in the reconciliation between China and Japan. When meeting with Abe, Xi said that "The world today is facing a big change unseen over the past century. There is a profound reshaping of the international governance system, and the global order is undergoing an accelerating change. China and Japan are having more and more mutual interests and concerns." This is an accurate description of this international factor at play.
thaw (in sth) : a situation in which the relations between two enemy countries become more friendly
back on track : going in the right direction again after a mistake, failure, etc.
tinge : a small amount of a colour, feeling or quality