On 14th January, the 15th round of the ‘China-Japan Strategic Dialogue’ was held in Xi’an, the ‘Terracotta Army’ city of China’s Shaanxi province. The mechanism is one of the few communication channels that remain active between the two countries: in addition to this Dialogue and regular diplomatic exchanges, the ‘China-Japan High-Level Economic Dialogue’, the ‘China-Japan Security Dialogue’ and the ‘China-Japan High-Level Political Dialogue’ make up for the entire system of bilateral consultations between Beijing and Tokyo.
After a seven-year hiatus, the ‘Strategic Dialogue’ resumed in August 2019, when China’s vice‑foreign minister Le Yucheng met his Japanese counterpart Takeo Akiba in Karuizawa, a city in the north of Tokyo. The ‘Strategic Dialogue’ was interrupted in 2012 — shortly after Shinzo Abe started his second term as Prime Minister — as China and Japan started to dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. The archipelago (composed of five islets and three barren rocks) is simultaneously claimed by China, Japan and Taiwan, which aim to control its oil and fishing resources. Since Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s state visit to Japan in 2018, Beijing and Tokyo agreed to set up a security hotline to avoid tensions in the maritime domain — a first step towards a long-term agreement for the area.
The 15th round occurred at a positive juncture for China-Japan relations. China, Japan and South Korea just agreed to speed up negotiations for the completion of a Free Trade Agreement (FTA). Furthermore, although on-going territorial disputes and Japan’s wartime occupation of China (especially with regards to the ‘rape of Nanjing’) are still contentious issues for relations between the two countries, Beijing and Tokyo have recently found common ground against U.S. President Donald Trump’s protectionist policies. Indeed, both China and Japan look with uncertainty at the U.S. role in East Asia, and Japan, in particular, is concerned about the new approach adopted by one of its oldest allies. For instance, last November, Trump requested quadruple payments to Tokyo in support to U.S. troops in Japan, risking causing frictions. A similar request was made to South Korea. During the Osaka summit of the 2019 G20 summit in June, moreover, Presidents Xi and Abe agreed on the first-ever Chinese presidential visit to Japan that is set to be held in April 2020. The visit will mark a milestone, as it can facilitate the release of a ‘fifth document’ outlining the principles that will push the relations between the two countries into a new phase. Thus, the 15th ‘Strategic Dialogue’ also is the occasion to prepare for the upcoming presidential state visit.
Yet, Beijing and Tokyo continue to find it hard to trust one another due to China’s global ambitions, as well as China’s suspicions about Japan’s role in Washington’s Indo-Pacific area. This is why the ‘Strategic Dialogue’ remains a framework of opportunities for both parties. The 14th round, in fact, did not only focused on bilateral ties, but also successfully discussed regional and international issues — such as Hong Kong, Taiwan and power imbalances in the Indo-Pacific area. Through the ‘Strategic Dialogue’, China and Japan in fact got a clearer image of the underlying principles that shape their respective ‘grand strategies’, thus moving slightly beyond the disinformation that usually characterizes conflictual inter-state relations. At the same time, the 15th round can potentially deepen mutual understanding between the two countries, and relax competition at the regional level. Yet, China’s influence operations around the world remain the biggest threat to the future of Sino-Japan relations. Although Japan has managed to repel China’s political influence, the Japanese maintain one of the least positive views of China among the thirty-four countries analysed by a 2019 Pew Research poll, with eighty-five percent of the interviewees having a negative opinion of the country. In contrast, China’s public has dramatically improved its opinion of Japan, as much that President Xi formally complained about the existing discrepancies between the two countries in November 2019, claiming that Japanese public opinion had been biased by the status of diplomatic relations. While China’s stance towards human rights, political contestation and territorial disputes aggravated Japan’s opinion, it was China’s growth as an economic and military power, as well as its global political rise to have been perceived as ‘threats’ from the Japanese. Although the ‘Strategic Dialogue’ remains a ‘top gear’ in the broader Sino-Japanese détente, it is the April state visit to have the true potential to change the future of Beijing and Tokyo’s relations, and re-shaping competition in the Indo-Pacific area. The current regional landscape seems to be showing a U.S. that no longer acts as a “barrier” between East Asian powers, but as a “passage” through which 125 years of regional competition and conflict become less bitter, when compared to the current unfriendliness showed by this old Western ally.