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Trump-sized window for Xi and Abe to thaw ties

SHINZO Abe starts on Thursday the first official trip to China in seven years by a Japanese prime minister. Amid brewing bilateral tensions, and a legacy of bitter memories of the Second World War, a "Donald Trump-sized" window of opportunity may nonetheless now exist for a significant thawing of ties.

Both Beijing and Tokyo have been disorientated by Washington in the last two years since Mr Trump was elected. This is especially following Vice-President Mike Pence's hard-hitting speech against China earlier this month, in which he launched an unexpectedly stinging attack; Beijing does not anticipate any significant warming of ties with Washington in the immediate future.

Meanwhile, despite the apparent personal positivity between Mr Trump and Mr Abe, Tokyo has been increasingly alarmed by the US administration's continued undermining of the post-war economic and political order. This includes US sanctions against Tokyo, which threaten key national industries, including the car sector.

It is in this disruptive context that this week's talks take place between Mr Xi and Mr Abe in their latest moves to rebuild relations, including through potentially shared agendas like building economic infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific.

Yet, while the mood music is positive, for now at least, distrust and competition continues to define much of their relationship.

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The sensitive and precarious nature of the trip is underlined by the changing start date. It was previously scheduled to commence earlier this week, on Tuesday, Oct 23, the 40th anniversary of former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping's visit to Japan in 1978 to sign the Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty.

But it has been pushed back to Thursday. This is, in part because Tuesday marks the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration, which paved the way for Japan to become an important player on the international stage.

For China, this is an understandably sensitive date, given that the first war between the two nations, in 1894-95, took place during the Meiji era, a war in which Japan won new territory. And it also, in turn, began a series of conflicts which were precursors for the 1931 Manchuria Incident and the Second Sino-Japanese War of 1937-45.

This underlines that while bilateral relations are no longer in the "deep freeze", there remains significant scope for tension and downside risk. Only last week, for instance, Tokyo submitted its latest official protest to Beijing after Chinese ships cruised around disputed islands in the region, called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

The strategic dilemma over future relations is particularly acute for Mr Abe as he seeks to navigate a domestic and foreign policy pathway through the economic and security minefield of retaining relations with Washington while seeking better bonds with Beijing.

With Mr Xi now set to be in power into the 2020s, this headache could become more acute for Tokyo if Mr Trump is re-elected in 2020 too.

For Mr Abe has to work out how best to respond to China's growing influence in the Asia-Pacific in the context of the uncertainties that Mr Trump's presidency has brought; this includes its departure from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has provided a new opportunity for Beijing to assert itself.

In the current fluid geopolitical landscape, which is being constantly re-shaped as key countries manoeuvre for advantage, Mr Abe had been seeking to align his long-standing foreign policy plans around that of Mr Trump's agenda.

Thus, in a context in which the White House appears to want a more internationally assertive Japan, the prime minister has been seeking to overturn much of the remaining legal and political underpinning of the country's post-war pacifist security identity so that it can become more externally engaged.

But doing this comes with the risk of potentially significantly inflaming regional tensions with China. For instance, as part of a commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific vision shared by Western countries, Tokyo became a target of Beijing's ire by conducting in September anti-submarine exercises in the South China Sea, including deploying destroyers from the Maritime Self-Defence Force.

One big, specific measure Mr Abe wants to push for is abolition of Article Nine. This is the clause in Japan's post-war constitution which constrains the country's military to a strictly defensive role rather than a conventional army; this clause has meant that defence spending has most often remained below 1 per cent of GDP.

To overturn this, Mr Abe will need not just a two-thirds majority in the nation's lower house, and upper house, but also a simple majority in a national referendum. Straightforward as that may sound, it could yet prove a major challenge, given the large body of Japanese public opinion which still values its post-war pacifism as the only country in the world to have ever been attacked with nuclear weapons.

This week's meeting thus shows that while China and Japan are seeking in the Trump era to set aside disputes and focus more on common agendas, this comes amid a legacy of distrust and competition.

The dilemmas are especially acute for Mr Abe, who, six years into his second prime ministership, is finding that Japan's strategic choices are more complex, and narrower, as he navigates the minefields that lie between Washington and Beijing.

  • The writer is an associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics.

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