On November 10, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping met in Beijing for 30 minutes or so on the outskirts of the APEC regional economic summit, then underway in China’s capital city. The two leaders had not met since each had come to power almost two years before, during which time diplomatic, economic, and even rocky security ties had taken a serious turn for the worse.
Veteran government officials and security analysts, while pretty much united in saying that Asia’s two superpowers talking would certainly seem to beat the alternative, they were also divided about China’s ultimate intentions, and just how far and how fast relations between Tokyo and Beijing might improve.
On Wednesday we began a five-part interview series on these topics. First up was Corey Wallace, a specialist in Japanese foreign and security policy. Today we speak with Bob Manning, an international affairs and energy specialist with many years of deal with East Asia.
AN INTERVIEW SERIES
Manning: ‘China pressure backfired in Asia’
Robert Manning is a senior fellow of the Brent Scowcroft Center for International Security at the Atlantic Council. From 2001-2008, Manning served in the US State Department, first as a senior counselor to the undersecretary for global affairs, and later as a member of the department’s policy planning staff. From 1997to 2001, Manning was director of Asian studies at the Council on Foreign Relations, where he led policy research task forces on Korea and Southeast Asia.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Does the Abe-Xi meeting represent a breakthrough in Japan-China relations?
MANNING: Breakthrough is much too strong a word. I think perhaps reset is more accurate description of what transpired. The two countries now have something of a “4 point consensus” that provides opportunities to re-normalize the relationship. That is probably best seen in the context of an overall recalibration by Beijing of its Asia-Pacific policies. China, for example, has been backing off from confrontation with Vietnam. There are even some positive developments in US-China relations, announced by President Obama and Xi Jinping. China seems to be trying to increase the positive/cooperative aspects of its relationship with Japan, and other nations in the region.
DISPATCH JAPAN: The separate statements issued by the two countries in advance of the leaders’ meeting allow both countries to claim ‘victory,’ but also put a spotlight on continued differences.
MANNING: The separate statements were an effort by each side to put its spin on what was agreed to. I think it can be seen as a victory for Japanese diplomacy. Tokyo’s negotiators seemed to allow it to appear that Japan recognizes that China disputes Japan’s sovereignty over the Senkakus, without actually doing so. Both sides got the minimum they needed, while allowing the other to claim a concession.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Could the differences in the statements to some extent have been deliberate, allowing both countries to save face while working to thaw relations?
MANNING: I wouldn’t say they were deliberate. The differences were a reflection of the fine art of diplomatic ‘word-smithing’.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is China really prepared to less-actively press its claim to sovereignty of the Senkakus/Diaoyus in the interest of improved ties with Japan, or has China’s contentiousness taken on a life of its own such that Xi Jinping will feel compelled to continue air and naval deployments in the vicinity of the islands?
MANNING: China is not likely to simply shelve its claim to the Senkakus/Diaoyus. I expect that China will continue air and sea activity around the islands, perhaps at a lower level. Beijing seems prepared to deal with that issue on a separate track, and not hold the entire relationship hostage to the territorial dispute. Other elements of the relationship -- economic, diplomatic contacts, military-to-military communications, Parliamentary exchanges, and other interactions can renormalize. I think both sides realized that the relationship had drifted into a dangerous level of tensions.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Is this thaw sustainable?
MANNING: Whether it is sustainable really will depend on what price Abe is willing to pay, particularly as we approach the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II next year. If he refrains from flirtations with historical revisionism, or better, makes a bold move to end the carping on the history issue, by expressing full atonement, I think China will continue the move towards a more normal relationship. If we see more visits to Yasakuni, and related expressions of revisionism, Xi’s temptation to play the anti-Japan nationalist card at home will be hard to resist. Remember, the Chinese Communist Party is insecure, and has a legitimacy problem that ongoing reform efforts may accentuate. Having Japan as a diversion from domestic unease is a real temptation.
DISPATCH JAPAN: What is driving the push inside Japan for improved ties with China? The weak economy? Complaints from business? A backlash against Abe’s stance on history issues? Fear of an unintentional military clash?
MANNING: The main driver in Japan to improve relations with China is the degeneration of the relationship over the past 2-3 years to the point that contacts were close to non-existent. Tensions were at postwar historic highs. There has been concern over possible accidental military clashes that could escalate. The tension was also shaping a negative environment for Japanese business with China.
DISPATCH JAPAN: After ratcheting up pressure on Japan over the Senkakus/Diaoyus, and issuing two preconditions before Xi would meet with Abe, why has China seemingly changed course to seek improved ties with Japan? What factors weighed heavily in Xi’s decision?
MANNING: China has watched its assertive behavior in the East and South China Seas generate growing concern across Asia, from India to Vietnam, about its intentions. This has accelerated loose collaboration both with the US and with each other in the region. For example, we see expanded ties between Japan and the Philippines, and between India and Vietnam, and the beginnings of a network of security cooperation to counter, or hedge against, China.
China’s policies could not have been more counterproductive, even though Beijing publicly puts the blame on the US “pivot”. Moreover, the pressure to be seen as a good host and cooperative partner as the host of APEC may have had a role in forcing China to recalibrate its stances in the region, and to perhaps even undertake its own “rebalance” aimed at calming tensions and polishing its image in the region.
The fact that Japanese investment in China has been down 40% over the past year or so was probably another factor.
DISPATCH JAPAN: So the “US rebalance”, and the upgrading of US-Japan defense ties, has influenced China’s policies?
MANNING: When China began ratcheting up tension over the Senkakus more than two years ago, they thought that Japan would cave under pressure, and that if Japan caved, it would be easier for China to get its way in the South China Sea. Beijing miscalculated badly, and thus began the rising spiral of confrontation. Beijing promotes a narrative of China being a “victim”, conveniently blaming every negative development in Asia on the US “rebalance”. But Beijing has cause and effect exactly backwards. It was Chinese behavior that led many in the region to want a stronger US role. The US rebalance was to a large extent “demand driven.”
Beijing has watched the shift in Japanese national security policies and the upgrading of the US-Japan alliance with growing consternation. Perhaps they believe their own rhetoric, but I think the record shows that China’s assertive approach to the Senkakus predated the US rebalance and the shift in Japanese policies.
DISPATCH JAPAN: Xi Jinping was clearly chilly toward Abe. Will it be possible for China to pursue improved ties with Japan overall, while, in effect, trying to work around Abe
MANNING: Clearly, there is no great love between Xi and Abe. It’s just business. You could argue that China is trying to work around Abe. But both China and Japan have an interest in stabilizing the relationship. Barring official Japanese expressions of historical revisionism, which Beijing would likely feel compelled to respond to, I suspect we will see the beginning of an incremental, protracted process of re-normalizing relations, with the two sides agreeing to disagree about the Senkakus.