INTERREGNUM. Trump approaches China and Japan. Fernando Delage

(Traducción: Isabel Gacho Carmona) Last week, for the first time in seven years, a Japanese Prime Minister paid a bilateral visit to China (in the multilateral arena, Abe attended the APEC summit in Beijing in 2014). And it is also expected that Chinese President Xi Jinping will travel to Japan next year. Do these meetings mean a return to normality in relations between the second and third largest economies on the planet?

The change in the relative position of power between the two neighbours since 2010 -when the Chinese GDP exceeded the Japanese and the Chinese claims of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands- opened a period of crisis. Japanese investments in the People’s Republic fell sharply between 2013 and 2015 and recovered last year, but China continued to be Japan’s largest trading partner (its bilateral exchanges add up to 300 billion dollars a year, a third more than Japan-United States trade).

Although Japan is the only one of the main North American allies that still does not belong to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and received with considerable reservations the announcement of the initiative of the Chinese New Silk Road, after a while it understood that it could not reject the opportunities that the project represented for its companies. Hence, without officially supporting it, it decided to allow the participation of Japanese firms, provided that certain regulatory requirements were respected. At the same time, Japan opted to compete directly with China, offering its own initiative to develop quality infrastructures-for which it offered a $ 100 billion fund and developing the Asia-Africa Economic Corridor with India. In opposition to the Chinese Silk Road, Japan offered an alternative scheme under the denomination of an “A Free and Open Indo-Pacific “.

The policies of Donald Trump are facilitating, however, the bases for a new approach between China and Japan. The increase in tensions with Washington leads Beijing to seek a stable relationship with Tokyo. Japan, meanwhile, also subject to threats of sanctions by the US administration – and concerned about Trump’s rapprochement with the North Korean leader – finds itself with an opportunity to reinforce shared economic interests with China, including advancing in the negotiation of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) with the ASEAN countries, and give new impetus to the free trade agreement between them and South Korea.

It is a complex challenge for the Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe. The underlying strategic context will not change: the change is structural, and the differential of economic and military power with the People’s Republic will continue to grow. Abe also cannot align with China against Trump. But while trying to maintain balance in the strategic triangle formed by these three powers, it complements it by expanding the playing field.

It is not accidental, therefore, that as soon as he returned from Beijing he received in Tokyo his Indian counterpart, Narendra Modo. Or that, on November 1st, Japan and India begin their first joint military exercises in the Indian northeast, which will last for 14 days. Manoeuvres that in turn are added to those recently made by 100 Japanese soldiers-with their armoured vehicles included-with US troops in the Philippines. A couple of weeks ago, Abe also received the leaders of Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, Thailand and Vietnam. The Japan-Mekong summit showed the participants’ concern for freedom of navigation in the South China Sea and the militarization of the islands by Beijing. Japanese diplomatic proactivism has no precedent, but it is paradoxical that it is its North American ally, and not only China, who is provoking it. (Foto: Leo Eberts, flickr.com)

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