May 09, 2017

Tokyo takes a vague attitude toward B&R

By Chen Yang Source:Global Times Published: 2017/5/9 19:33:39


Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

Japanese Liberal Democratic Party's Secretary General Toshihiro Nikai will attend the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation, to be held on May 14 and 15 in Beijing. During an interview in late April, Nikai spoke highly of the Belt and Road initiative proposed by China and the China-backed Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and he said it is possible for Japan to join the AIIB.

Coincidentally, Bank of Japan's Governor Haruhiko Kuroda told journalists at the celebration of the 50th anniversary of the Asian Development Bank on May 2 that the AIIB "is a good thing." 

Japan has long been cautious about the Belt and Road initiative and the AIIB backed by China, but the recent comments by Japanese politicians and economists show an obvious change in tone. 

Nikai's attendance at the Belt and Road forum will facilitate improvement in bilateral relations. As the secretary general of the Liberal Democratic Party, Nikai's position and influence within the party are only second to Abe, and he is among the few Japanese politicians in direct dialogue with China's top leadership under the cooled relations between China and Japan. 

For instance, in May 2015, he led a 3,000-strong delegation to China and gave a letter from Abe to Chinese President Xi Jinping. So he may deliver another letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to China's top leaders this time. 

Nikai is a senior leader of the Japanese ruling party instead of a senior government official. By sending him to the Belt and Road forum, Abe is giving a leeway for future adjustments in his government's policy.

Japan's attitude shift toward the Belt and Road and the AIIB is indeed unexpected, but there are three concerns regarding the Abe administration. 

First, Japan is eager to explore new areas for economic growth after the Trump administration took office. Unlike Barack Obama, who championed multilateral trade, the Trump administration focuses more on bilateral trade. Trump announced his exit from the TPP right after taking office and in April he pushed for the start of FTA negotiations with Japan at an early date. 

The US' exit from the TPP has been a blow to Japan's economic growth and strategic schemes, and Japan holds limited bargaining chips during FTA negotiations within the framework of the US-Japan alliance, which means it has to sacrifice economic and trade benefits for diplomatic support from the US. 

Besides, Japan's Economic Partnership Agreement negotiations with the EU and Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership negotiations with ASEAN are also showing limited progress. So seeking to join the Belt and Road initiative will at least help the Japanese economy explore areas for economic growth in the short term.

Second, a stable Sino-US relationship is motivating Japan to join the AIIB before the US. After Trump took office, there have been no major bumps in the Sino-US relations. The meeting between Trump and Xi in April, in particular, has set the tone for a stable bilateral relationship. 

The Asian Development Bank backed by the US and Japan only has 67 members after 50 years while the AIIB, established a year ago, already has 70, and more countries are expected to join. Against the backdrop of a stable Sino-US relationship and a growing AIIB, the possibility of the US joining the AIIB cannot be ruled out. 

Japan and the US are the only members of G7 who are still hesitating. If the US joins the AIIB before Japan, then the latter will be placed in an extremely awkward diplomatic position and its influence as an economic power will be severely weakened. 

Therefore, though Nikai is visiting China in the name of attending the Belt and Road forum, he will presumably communicate with Chinese officials about the AIIB as well. 

Lastly, this visit is an opportunity for Japan to test the water for improving Sino-Japanese relations in the future. Relations between China and Japan have remained aloof since the start of Abe's second administration in December 2012. Though Chinese leaders met with Abe on several occasions in the past few years, all were at international conferences instead of formal bilateral or summit meetings. 

As this year marks the 45th anniversary of the normalization of China-Japan relations, it is quite important if Abe can take this opportunity to pay a formal visit to China and hold a meeting with his Chinese counterpart.  

The author is a PhD candidate at the Graduate School of Sociology at Toyo University.

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