Bilateral relations between Japan and China are one of the scarecrows that hover over the issues of East Asia’s security and trade. Several elements characterize the divide between the two countries, mainly historical disputes over the Japanese invasion in the 1930s and the close relationship developed by Japan and the United States after the Second World War. At the same time, Japan and China are the biggest regional economies, together accounting for more than 71 percent of the region’s total Gross Domestic Product in 2019. The two economies are deeply intertwined, with China having been both Japan’s top import origin (155 billion US dollars, 24% of total imports) and export destination (139 billion US dollars, 19.4% of total exports) in 2019. The United States, in contrast, remained second place representing only 11% of Japan’s imports (73.5 billion US dollars) and 18.9% of its exports (135 billion US dollars). In addition, Japan also received 10.6 billion US dollars in investments from China in the last fifteen years, mainly targeting the real estate sector (4 billion US dollars) and transports (2.2 billion US dollars).
It was mainly through trade and investments rather than diplomacy that bilateral relations started to normalize, peaking ahead of the 2019 summit of the Group of Twenty in Osaka where the two countries agreed to start making preparations for the official state visit of Chinese President Xi Jinping in Japan the following spring. Indefinitely postponed because of the pandemic, the meeting would have marked a milestone in diplomatic and security relations between the two countries, as the last Chinese President to pay a state visit to the eastern neighbour had been Hu Jintao in 2008. After the election of Suga Yoshihide to the premiership, expectations were for state-visit talks to be resumed, yet the issue has not been addressed so far—not even in the thirty-minutes phone conversation the two leaders held on 25 September. Nevertheless, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is scheduled to meet his Japanese counterpart at the end of October.
By sending Wang instead of Yang Jiechi, a prominent member of the Politburo who had last visited Japan in February, China is sending the “big guns” to Tokyo. Indeed, not only is Wang a former ambassador to Japan, but he is also proficient in Japanese language and culture—someone that in Japan would be called a 日本通 (nihon-tsū), a Japanese enthusiast. And after the Suga-Xi phone call, China has realized that if bilateral relations are to continue normalizing – tensions on epidemic responsibility and Taiwan’s role in the World Health Organization (WHO) notwithstanding – Beijing needs to send experts to the frontline (at least in the short term). Apart from mutual (and vague) claims on strengthening economic and trade cooperation and deepening people-to-people exchanges, in fact, Suga has raised sensitive (and politically costly) issues for China during the phone call with Xi, spanning from the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial dispute in the East China Sea, China’s activism around the islets of the South China Sea, and the National Security Law in Hong Kong. Moreover, Wang’s visit will follow US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s, who will be among the first foreign officials to meet Suga in person. Pompeo will visit Asia from the 4th to the 8th of October, making stops also in Mongolia and South Korea, and participating in the second “Quad” meeting.
The timing of the US and China visits mirrors that of the congratulatory phone calls Suga received after the election: priority had in fact been given to Australia, the US and India (all the “Quad” countries) rather than China. This is a rough start for Xi and Wang, although it was expected: China had in fact been treating Japan with caution, after anti-Chinese sentiment had been mounting in Japan, and Tokyo had joined the US in supporting Taiwan’s inclusion in WHO meetings during the pandemic. Taiwan remains a divisive issue for Japan and China, although Suga has already made a step back by not making a phone call with the island’s President Tsai Ing-wen. Still, on Chinese newspapers, the Suga-Xi phone call was overshadowed by another call Xi had on the same day with Angolan President Joao Lourenco—another instance of Beijing’s wariness.
Although bilateral relations remain a priority for both Japan and China, especially in light of the connection between the two economies, Suga’s premiership starts under a cloud. By his own admission, Suga is inexperienced when it comes to foreign policy, therefore he might feel more comfortable sticking to the path traced by his predecessor and remain close to Japan’s traditional allies. Relations with China under Suga will likely remain centered on trade and economic cooperation and no major diplomatic upheaval is to be expected—at least until he keeps the role of ad interim Premier.
 Due to unavailability, North Korea’s data are not included.
 The Quad is a quadrilateral cooperative framework led by the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, which aims to strengthen security ties and offer an alternative to Belt and Road investments to regional actors, especially in South and South-east Asia.