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China-Japan ties: Coronavirus and US tensions cloud hopes for ‘new era’

South China Morning Post logo South China Morning Post 4/8/2020 Kristin Huang
Shinzo Abe, Xi Jinping posing for a photo: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) was set to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) this year but the coronavirus pandemic has postponed the virus. Photo: DPA Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) was set to welcome Chinese President Xi Jinping (right) this year but the coronavirus pandemic has postponed the virus. Photo: DPA

This year was supposed to usher in a new era of cooperation between China and Japan. At the G20 summit in Osaka in 2019, both countries agreed that it was time for a reboot in the relationship.

But hopes of that new era have faded amid the coronavirus pandemic and a sharp decline in the relationship between Beijing and Washington.

There were still positive signs in February. As China grappled with an epidemic that first emerged in the central Chinese city of Wuhan, Japan sent urgently needed medical supplies, with poetry on the side of boxes filled with face masks and thermometers: "Even though we live in different places, we live under the same sky."

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"I was really moved ... Since the start of the coronavirus pandemic, the Japanese government and society have expressed sympathy, understanding and support," Hua Chunying, Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman, said in early February.

However, cracks have since emerged on several fronts between China and Japan as the Sino-US relationship quickly worsened and pushed Japan to be more vigilant towards China, the controversial national security law was introduced in Hong Kong and China continued to expand its reach in the East China Sea.

The virus also disrupted supply chains, prompting the Japanese government to offer incentives to companies to move operations out of China.

In a recent call between Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Japanese counterpart, Toshimitsu Motegi, the once highly anticipated state visit of President Xi Jinping to China's island neighbour was not mentioned at all, even though it was understood that the visit would likely be postponed at least to next year because of the pandemic.

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Earlier this month, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) resisted and watered down a proposed demand to cancel Xi's visit to Japan following the enactment of the national security law in Hong Kong.

"Abe had been hoping for a state visit from Xi as a demonstration of the positive management of bilateral ties. The reasons why there are very vocal voices coming from Abe's LDP against a Xi visit of any sort, as well as an apparent breakdown in the management of ties, is due to the series of actions that China has taken over the past several months," said Jeffrey Hornung, a political scientist specialising in Japanese security and foreign policies at the Rand Corporation, a US government-funded think tank.

"Whether it be gutting Hong Kong's democracy, Chinese military clashes with India, Chinese expansive behaviour in the South China Sea, or increasingly provocative behaviour by Chinese military and coastguard assets taken against Taiwan and Japan and the East China Sea, Chinese behaviour is causing anxieties in Tokyo to rise," Hornung said, adding this had caused an increasing number of people in Japan to support a harder stance against China.

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Recent months have indeed been bumpy between China and Japan.

Even before the national security law was enacted in Hong Kong, Tokyo expressed "regret" over its concerns that Hong Kong's "one country, two systems" framework would be undermined.

"It is with regret that the legislation was passed regardless of the strong concern shown by the international community and the people of Hong Kong," Japan's Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said on June 30.

Yoshikazu Kato, an adjunct associate professor at Asia Global Institute at the University of Hong Kong, said Japan was concerned about Hong Kong's future because of the national security law.

"Although Beijing has said the national security law would target extremely few people ... It's uncertain now whether Hong Kong's economy will be sustainably prosperous. A sense of uncertainty and concern is stronger than before," said Kato, pointing out that Japanese businesses had a significant presence in the city.

Military friction was also on the rise. On June 18, a Chinese submarine passed within a few kilometres of Japan's territorial waters near the island of Amami Oshima. Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono publicly identified the vessel as Chinese and said the incident was part of a pattern of China's assertiveness.

Japan's rules for foreign access to tech: aimed at China, North Korea?

On the economic front, Japan has earmarked US$2.2 billion of its record economic stimulus package in April to help its manufacturers move production away from China, as the coronavirus disrupts supply chains between the major trading partners.

And on the technology front, a group of LDP lawmakers said last Tuesday they planned to call on Abe's government to restrict the use of apps developed by Chinese companies, such as TikTok, in Japan because of security concerns.

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Chen Gang, a senior research fellow at the East Asian Institute at the National University of Singapore, said those changes reflected that Japan was quickly adjusting its China policy in the pandemic by siding with the US and becoming more assertive on the East China Sea and other China-related issues.

"But, it will be hard for Japan to totally decouple from China economically, as the interdependence between the two countries and geographic proximity mean such a scenario would not be possible," said Cheng, adding that "China-Japan relations have experienced ups and downs for decades and such a trajectory would continue in the future".

Yoshikazu Kato echoed Cheng's observation, pointing out that China remains an attractive country for Japanese businesses, especially for car companies such as Toyota and Honda.

"There are reports which said some companies are moving away from China. I disagree. These policies (of exiting China) are indeed very unpopular. In my understanding and observation, (there are) very few companies (interested), and most of them very small and in need of money so they applied for this programme. But most companies, especially automobile companies, have even increased investment and R&D in mainland China," Kato said.

a close up of a sign: Toyota Motor Corp embarked on a joint venture in Beijing this year to develop and expand the use of fuel-cell commercial vehicles in China. Photo: Bloomberg © Provided by South China Morning Post Toyota Motor Corp embarked on a joint venture in Beijing this year to develop and expand the use of fuel-cell commercial vehicles in China. Photo: Bloomberg

According to a Mainichi newspaper report in early June, Toyota teamed up with five Chinese manufacturers in setting up a joint venture in Beijing this year to develop and expand the use of fuel-cell commercial vehicles in China.

However, Grant Newsham, a senior research fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies, a conservative Japanese think tank, was less optimistic about future relations between the two countries.

"I expect the relationship to worsen. It probably won't be a complete decoupling but it will be more distant and more wary. And if the People's Republic of China continues its efforts to dominate and control Japan's southern territory, the prospect of conflict appears," Newsham said.

"In such a case, the United States would most likely get involved. At that point, the Sino-Japan relationship will be in tatters, not to mention the Sino-US relationship, and for many years to come."

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