Chinese Premier Li Keqiang’s contribution to The Asahi Shimbun that called for resetting ties with Japan indicates that Tokyo is part of Beijing’s overall fence-mending mission across Asia aimed at securing economic development. Li wrote that he wants Japan and China to move toward building a new relationship that was seriously damaged by the dispute over the Senkaku Islands. From China’s standpoint, historical issues cannot be separated when thinking about Japan, so many delicate issues are always involved.
However, diplomacy between Tokyo and Beijing has often been influenced by the domestic political situation in China. Chinese President Xi Jinping solidified his political base for his second term following the Chinese Communist Party congress held in autumn 2017. His administration is now in a position to work in a calmer environment on improving ties with Japan.
Li’s contribution was a forward-looking piece that emphasized the many benefits to world peace and development that would arise from friendship between China and Japan. He expressed an understanding that bilateral ties would be hurt if the four diplomatic documents that serve as the political foundation of the Japan-China relationship are not respected.
Those documents include joint statements issued by the two nations over the past 40 years. At the same time, Li alluded to the fragility of the bilateral relationship because of the many seeds of friction that revolve around the two nations. But he stopped short of referring directly to such issues as Japanese government officials’ visits to war-related Yasukuni Shrine and the Senkaku controversy.
That shows he was more interested in pushing forward bilateral ties rather than raising those thorny issues once again. Through improved ties, Beijing is hoping most of all for economic cooperation from Japan. China’s pace of economic growth is gradually slowing, and Beijing faces increasing economic friction with Washington.
Although China may be an economic superpower, it is still a middle-income nation in terms of per capita gross domestic product. As Li points out in his contribution, China has made the judgment that under the current circumstances, Beijing needs stable relations with all its neighbors to further focus on building up its economy.
China has recently made various moves to improve ties with various nations with which it has had confrontations over the years. These include Southeast Asian countries that were involved in territorial disputes in the South China Sea as well as India, with which China has had a border dispute for many years.
China’s move toward improving relations with Japan can also be seen as part of its wider-ranging diplomacy with neighboring nations as it focuses on economic growth and dealing with the United States.