China and Japan Try City-Level Diplomacy Amid Cold Relations

8 MINS READApr 23, 2014 | 09:13 GMT
China and Japan Try City-Level Diplomacy Amid Cold Relations
Tokyo Metropolitan Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe speaking in Tokyo on March 19.

Tokyo Gov. Yoichi Masuzoe will visit China from April 24 to 27 to meet with Beijing Mayor Wang Anshun to discuss a range of matters of mutual concern to their cities. Masuzoe's trip comes at a time of distrust between the two historical rivals: China is attempting to carve out a sphere of influence, and Japan is attempting to revive its "great power" status and normalize its military. The friction has played out across maritime territory, airspace, trade, investment, diplomacy and history, and the underlying conflict shows little sign of abating even if initiatives like Masuzoe's lead to temporary improvements.

In 2012, both countries saw new leaders come into power who are concerned about growing military insecurities, have an urgent need to undertake difficult economic reforms and are using nationalism to gain public support. So far, Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have refused to hold a summit. While China believes Japan is drawing the United States deeper into an offensive effort to constrict Beijing, Japan fears China will encroach further into its space even if it should not adjust its military posture in preparation for the worst.

China is particularly unnerved by some recent signs of success in Japan's revitalization efforts. Tokyo is recalibrating its alliance with the United States, improving economic and defense relations with Southeast Asian states, driving its currency down to make its exports more competitive and orchestrating a strategic thaw with erstwhile enemies such as Russia and North Korea.

Meanwhile, China's economy is slowing. Higher costs and a rising currency in recent years (although it is sliding downward currently) are cutting away its international competitiveness faster than Beijing can develop more advanced growth engines. Moreover, it faces containment efforts by the United States and its regional partners, and its security is deteriorating in the far west as a result of the ongoing struggle with Uighur militants and other shifting militant threats upon the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.

Attempts at Outreach

Despite the cold climate, Beijing and Tokyo have reached out to each other in minor ways to maintain communication, probe for weaknesses and broach possibilities for future cooperation. Japanese companies still crave access to China's market, especially after seeing exports to China drop off in recent years and add to Japan's growing trade deficits significantly. China could use Japanese investment and expertise more than ever as it attempts to shift into a more advanced industrial model.

Both sides also wish to manage their nationalist tensions, lest they force leaders into difficult situations or set themselves up to face unmanageable public anger in the event of an incident or conflict. Neither side seems willing (yet) to ignite a war to force a settlement of territorial disputes in the East China Sea. While China is pushing somewhat aggressively for new legal and administrative expressions of its intention to revise the status quo, including the new air defense identification zone, so far it has avoided enforcing its declarations to the extent that would provoke outright conflict. The Japanese have focused on military normalization and redirecting military attention to the southwest islands as preparations for the future, without provoking immediate conflict.

Japan's Trade Deficit

Japan's Trade Deficit

Hence China and Japan have reached out to each other through various backchannels and interchanges. The two sides, along with South Korea, have renewed talks on a trilateral free trade agreement. On March 6, Hu Deping, the son of China's famous reformer Hu Yaobang and a friend of Xi, met with former Japanese prime ministers Yasuhiro Nakasone, Tomiichi Murayama, Yasuo Fukuda and Yukio Hatoyama to discuss ways to improve relations. China also recently hosted talks between Japan's and North Korea's Red Cross branches, and Japanese Maritime Self-Defense Force officers attended a naval symposium hosted by China, though without holding exclusive bilateral meetings. Masuzoe makes his trip to Beijing in this context of tentative Sino-Japanese openings amid a broader trend of deteriorating relations.

Masuzoe's Viewpoint

Tokyo's centrality to Japan's economy and politics ensures that the governor is an influential figure. Tokyo's total economic output ranges from 16-18 percent of the country's entire output (peaking at 19 percent in 1989, the last year of the bubble economy), and on average in the post-World War II era provides about 14 percent of local government revenue.

However, the central government at times considers the Tokyo governor's seat a thorn in its side. Since the late 1960s, Tokyo governors either have been independents with varying degrees of distance from the dominant Liberal Democrats (this has been the case since 1980) or have come from parties in direct competition with the Liberals (like socialist Gov. Ryokichi Minobe, 1967-1979). An independent leader in Tokyo sometimes causes serious disruptions for the national leadership in several areas, including relations with China. Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist who held the post from 1999-2012, never visited Beijing but sparked a crisis for the ruling Democratic Party of Japan and for Sino-Japanese relations when he attempted to have Tokyo purchase the Senkaku Islands that China disputes with Japan. This move forced the central government to purchase the islands, riling nationalist impulses in China and Japan just before elections that for several reasons threw the Democratic Party of Japan out of power. The Chinese still view this change of the island's legal status as a provocation that requires a tough response.

Masuzoe is also somewhat independent from the central government leadership, but he may play a more complementary role. He is the first member of the Liberal Democratic Party to take the governor's seat since Ryotaro Azuma stepped down in 1967. His election, despite an alliance of two former prime ministers who opposed Masuzoe and Abe's attempts to restart nuclear power, saved Abe from a humiliating setback. Yet Masuzoe is personally popular, not dependent on the party and has long cultivated a reputation as an independent-minded reformer, particularly on health issues. He kept the Liberal Democrats at arm's length by starting a separate party during their rough patch from 2009 to 2012 before returning to the Liberal Democratic ranks to enable his election in February. His simultaneous distance from the Abe administration and alignment with the ruling party could put him in a useful position to try to improve relations with China.

Masuzoe's political agenda also gives him a unique angle in his discussions with his Beijing counterpart, Wang: cooperation in preparing for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Masuzoe was elected on the promise of improving Tokyo's disaster prevention and preparedness, spurring the economy and addressing the aging population with more social services. But he looks to borrow strategies from Azuma, who brought the 1964 Summer Olympics to Tokyo during Japan's economic boom. Azuma used the Olympics as a theme to unify the city and justify his policies. Masuzoe is trying to do the same in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics amid the ruling party's overarching efforts at national economic revival.

Hosting the games may not bring a net economic benefit to the city, but it can benefit politically powerful interests like construction firms. Masuzoe and the Liberal Democrats have signaled that the need for construction workers justifies loosening foreign work visas, which, however marginal in comparison with Japan's overall population decline, could help change attitudes and regulations that constrict immigration. Hence Masuzoe claims he will seek advice from Wang about the lessons of the 2008 Beijing Olympics (the mayor served as Beijing's deputy party secretary at the time).

This kind of cooperation could yield diplomatic benefits. Already this year the need for coordination on relief efforts in the event of an earthquake striking Tokyo has provided the basis of a trilateral exercise at the Japanese Foreign Ministry with Chinese and South Korean participants.

Wang's Perspective

For his part, Wang has participated in a number of city-level engagements, both through the United Nations and directly, with mayors of cities such as Los Angeles, so the outreach to Tokyo fits within his existing initiatives. He has so far avoided the Xi administration's ongoing anti-corruption campaign despite his ties to the oil sector and several high-profile politicians under investigation. He has focused his policies on areas that fit within the leadership's overarching reform initiatives, such as fighting pollution and improving the city's infrastructure and education systems for the purposes of improving quality of life and building a more innovative economy. In all these areas, the Japanese could offer assistance. Connections at the city level may enable the two sides to communicate and cooperate without having to address as many thorny national disagreements that might come up at higher-level meetings.

Though the meeting between Masuzoe and Wang could involve other officials and discussions on a range of issues, it is not clear exactly what concrete benefits the two sides can gain from the visit. Though the meeting might lead to further exchanges and could help to improve the general tone of relations for a time, it will not make a substantial difference in Sino-Japanese relations. The underlying antagonism driving the countries apart will continue as long as China strives to have its strategic interests more broadly recognized and Japan resists ceding its established strategic position to a rising power. Both countries will remain distrustful, and potentially belligerent, as a result of their overlapping foreign resource dependencies, territorial insecurities, naval capabilities and economic vulnerabilities. However, diplomacy may help to ease tensions and delay confrontation, or perhaps provide means of managing emergencies more effectively as they arise.

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