Japanese Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio’s official visit to Beijing from April 29 to May 1, the first trip to China by a Japanese Foreign Minister since November 2011, represented renewed effort to mend the frayed relationship between Asia’s two most powerful countries (South China Morning Post, April 30).  The visit came as the two sides continue to spar over the Senkaku Islands—which Japan administers but China claims and refers to as the Diaoyu Islands—and Tokyo becomes increasingly concerned about the implications of China’s growing military power and more assertive foreign policy. These direct bilateral tensions are fueling an intense regional competition for friends and influence, as China’s One Belt One Road initiative seeks to consolidate inroads into Asia and Africa while excluding Japan, and Japan provides military aid to China’s rival claimants in the South China Sea.
Chinese commentary on the trip, including unofficial and official statements, highlighted the sensitivity and difficulty of the task, underscoring how frosty the China-Japan relationship has become in recent years. Chinese media reports on Foreign Minister Kishida’s trip suggest Beijing expects Tokyo to make the first significant moves toward reconciliation, and even accommodation. Appearing firm on Japan is certainly important domestically for Chinese leaders, though disappointing economic growth for both countries likely acts as a brake on these nationalistic strains. On the whole, Beijing appears to recognize that a more stable relationship with Japan is in its interests, and Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit may well help to set the stage for a Xi-Abe meeting on the sidelines of the G-20 meeting in Hangzhou later this year.
Rolling out the Red Carpet?
Ahead of Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit, Chinese state-run press set a strident tone demanding Japan’s accommodation. One Global Times article cited several Chinese scholars who said Japan should avoid any further involvement in South China Sea issues, warning that any perceived meddling there would only hamper attempts to steady the bilateral relationship (Global Times, April 29). “Japan should be aware that interfering in disputes in the South China Sea undermines Sino-Japanese relations, which also belies its words on improving ties with China,” said Lu Yaodong, director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (CASS). A Xinhua article clearly laid down the government’s position that Japan was responsible for fixing the relationship: Foreign Minister Kishida was expected “through his sincerity rather than empty talk [to] take concrete actions to improve ties between the two closest neighbors,” as “Japan is doing little to help mend frayed bilateral ties” and should “meet China halfway” (Xinhua, April 29).
Official statements from China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) were more diplomatically worded, but almost equally circumspect. On April 27, MFA spokesperson Hua Chunying implied that Japan holds responsibility to repair the relationship: “We hope that the Japanese side would work with China toward the same goal […] properly deal with relevant issues and make concrete efforts for the sustained improvement and growth of relations with China” (MFA, April 27).
In a speech Tokyo prior to leaving Japan, Foreign Minister Kishida acknowledged the visit might be challenging but signaled an openness to dialogue (Kyodo News, April 25). He feared that the relationship “could be a house built on sand” and said Japan and other countries are “concerned about China’s unilateral actions to alter the status quo in the East and South China seas, under the country’s goal of becoming a maritime power,” as well as “about China’s rapid and opaque increase in its military expenditures” (Japan News, April 25). In response, the Global Times focused on China’s consternation at these negative comments and highlighted Chinese unease about Japanese security cooperation with the Philippines (Global Times, April 29). Reinforcing this as the prominent issue of the meeting, on April 29, Hua reiterated China’s stance on its maritime territorial claims, stating that China’s activities are “completely justified and lawful” and that China had lodged a protest with the Japanese side (MFA, April 29).
Kishida’s visit is part of renewed diplomatic activity that nonetheless has done little to move the needle toward substantially improved ties. After negotiations failed for a visit by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to Beijing around the September 2015 military parade, Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi visited Tokyo in October and met with Abe and other senior leaders (Japan Times, August 24, 2015; SCMP, October 13, 2015). In November, China, South Korea and Japan held their first trilateral leadership summit in three years (Yonhap, November 1, 2015).
“If You Come With Sincerity, We Welcome You”
Foreign Minister Kishida met with Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, Premier Li Keqiang and State Council Yang Jiechi on April 30. Official statements on the discussions between Foreign Minister Wang and Foreign Minister Kishida generally echoed the unyielding tone taken before his arrival. According to China’s MFA, the four hours of discussions between Wang and Kishida at the Diaoyutai State Guesthouse began with Wang expressing China’s sympathy for the damage suffered during the earthquake that recently struck Japan’s Kumamoto Prefecture. But from there the talks took on a more confrontational tone. Wang noted that this was Kishida’s first visit to China after assuming the post of Japanese Foreign Minister—over three years ago. Wang then stated that the China-Japan relationship “has suffered various setbacks over these years, falling to a low ebb.” The Japanese side, Wang said, “knows clear the reason behind that” (MFA, April 30). Specifically, the “root cause for twists and turns in China-Japan relations is Japan’s outlook on history and China” (MFA, April 30).
After laying the blame for the downturn in China-Japan relations squarely on the Japanese side, Wang continued, stating that Japan had shown a “willingness to take the first step.” Furthermore, Wang said, “If you come with sincerity, we welcome you.” Yet again reasserting China’s demand for Japan to make the first move, he added, “I am ready to listen to your opinion about how to improve China-Japan relations, and I am also going to see whether the Japanese side will match its words with deeds” (MFA, April 30).
Offering a way forward on Chinese terms, Wang Yi laid out a “four point requirement on improving China-Japan relations” (MFA, April 30). These were:
- Uphold past agreements, including adhering to China’s stance on Taiwan. Japan should “face up to and reflect upon the history and follow the one-China policy to the letter. No ambiguity or vacillation is allowed when it comes to this important political foundation of the bilateral ties.”
- Stop criticizing China. Following the long-standing formulation that “the two countries are each other’s cooperative partners rather than threats,” Japan “should have a more positive and healthy attitude toward the growth of China, and stop spreading or echoing all kinds of ‘China threat’ or ‘China economic recession’ theories.”
- Cooperate with China. “The Japanese side should establish the concept of win-win [economic] cooperation” and “enhance equal-footed and pragmatic cooperation with China in different fields based on mutual benefit.”
- Respect China’s interests. “The two sides should respect each other’s legitimate interests and concerns, and have essential communication and coordination in a timely fashion.” Japan “should cast aside the confrontation mentality and work with China to maintain peace, stability and prosperity of the region.”
These conditions follow a longstanding pattern in Chinese foreign policy, which frames China as the victim or weaker party and thus places the burden of action on the other party. In recent relations with Japan, this has manifested itself in negotiations over the infamous Xi-Abe handshake at APEC in November 2014 and Abe’s potential attendance at the September 2015 parade, both cases where China held firm on its conditions (Taipei Times, October 23, 2014). This approach is also evident in China’s domestic discourse over the South China Sea territorial disputes, which portray rival claimants as having taken advantage of China’s previously weakened position and Beijing now acting to right this perceived injustice, thus requiring accommodation through China’s preferred resolution mechanism, bilateral discussion (see China Brief, April 3, 2015).
Good Cop, Bad Cop?
Premier Li Keqiang and State Councilor Yang Jiechi struck a more upbeat tone in their meetings, according to Chinese statements. Premier Li said that despite past tensions, “bilateral relations currently have positive momentum for improvement, but the foundation is still fragile, so the two sides should take responsibility to move Sino-Japanese relations in the right direction” (Chinese Government Online, April 30). Li was less critical of Japan than Wang Yi and placed more emphasis on improving the relationship, though he said that he “hopes Japan sticks to the path of peaceful development [and] pursues a positive China policy.” Yang Jiechi reiterated Wang and Li’s emphasis on the tenuous improvement of relations, the framework of the four founding documents and the 2014 four-point consensus, as well as the need for practical steps to boost ties (China News, April 30).  Although Li and Yang outrank Wang Yi, the latter’s meeting with Kishida was given prominent media coverage, likely due to his primary role in messaging Chinese conditions for the relationship.
The job of explaining Li and Yang’s comments in starker terms was left to Chinese academics in the state-run press. Yang Xiyu, a former MFA official now at the MFA-affiliated China Institute of International Studies (CISS), said Kishida’s meeting with all three senior Chinese leaders in one day, which went above and beyond diplomatic protocol, “fully demonstrated the determination of high-levels within the Chinese government to improve Sino-Japanese relations.” But reflecting the Chinese government’s tone for the visit, he added that the ball is in Japan’s court and it is up to Tokyo to improve the relationship moving forward (China News, April 30). Yang highlighted two longstanding problems of concern to China—Japan’s nationalization of the Senkakus and Abe’s policies toward history and revising the constitution—and one new problem—what he called Japan’s linking of the East and South China Sea issues “to create an anti-China joint front.” Another expert from CASS said, “Of course, whether or not the two countries can really improve ties depends on whether the Japanese government can correctly face history and treat China’s rise with a ‘normal state of mind’ ” (Global Times, May 3).
Japanese Reaction to Chinese Conditions
Chinese and Japanese media reporting revealed what appears to be a wide divergence in perspectives. According to Chinese official statements, Kishida took a positive approach to the meetings, as he “highlighted that China’s development means opportunities for Japan” and “[commended] China for its positive role and important contributions in many of international and regional affairs.” After reaffirming past bilateral agreement, Kishida said Japan “will join the Chinese side in building mutual understanding and trust, expanding exchanges and cooperation across the board, properly managing differences and crisis and broadening the positive dimension of the bilateral relations so as to build a Japan-China relationship in the new era” (MFA, April 30).
However, Japanese media reports suggest the tone of Wang Yi’s demands for the relationship was “deeply irritating” to Tokyo and noted that Kishida “vehemently denied Japan talking up Chinese threats, saying, ‘it is not a fact. They are simply reported by media’ ” (Nikkei Asian Review, May 2). Although Chinese statements did not identify specific topics of conversation, Japanese media reports said the topics the two sides discussed included North Korea, the South China Sea and Taiwan (Japan Times, May 1).
One positive aspect of the visit that went largely unreported in official Chinese accounts but was picked up in Chinese media was Kishida’s reported offer to “ease visa requirements for Chinese visitors to Japan,” according to Japanese media reports (Asahi Shimbun, April 30). On May 13, the Japanese government released plans to “relax eligibility conditions for multiple-entry visas, double the validity period for the visas from five years to 10 years, and simplify visa application procedures for certain students” this summer, following from initial discussions in early April by State Minister for Foreign Affairs Seiji Kihara and earlier easing in January 2015 (China Daily, January 14, 2015; Global Times, April 6; Global Times, May 2; China.org, May 7; Japan Times, May 13; China Daily, May 16).  Chinese tourism to Japan has been one bright spot in the relationship, with Chinese visitors doubling in 2015 and now accounting for 40 percent of tourism revenues (China Daily, May 16). The Chinese government may have sought to overlook this outreach because it did not neatly fit their critical narrative of Japan.
Japan’s ASEAN Outreach Highlights Challenges
Following Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit to Beijing, he traveled to Thailand, Laos, Myanmar and Vietnam (Japanese MFA, May 6). In Bangkok, he gave a speech at Chulalongkorn University on Japan’s role in the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) (Japanese MFA, May 2). He touted Japan’s support for ASEAN connectivity and integration, human resource development, environmental protection of the Mekong River as well as economic and infrastructure development in the region. Pivoting to the elephant in the room, he said “ASEAN and its partners, including Japan, are confronted with a pile of various challenges, including […] those related to maritime security.” Kishida reasserted the “Three Principles of the Rule of Law at Sea,” Japan’s recent G7 statement in opposition to “attempts to unilaterally change the status quo in the South China Sea” and the need for a Code of Conduct in the South China Sea. 
Chinese media coverage was critical of Kishida’s comments calling for ASEAN solidarity against China in the South China Sea, with the Global Times writing that his “face [attitude toward China] turned faster than a book page” (Global Times, May 3). Another article claimed Kishida was “Abe’s henchman,” that the low point in relations was due to “Japan’s maneuvers in China’s peripheral affairs such as the East and South China Seas disputes” and that Japan “[passed] the buck” on improving China-Japan relations to Beijing (Global Times, May 3).
Notably, each of the points Foreign Minister Wang raised as part of China’s “four point requirement” demand action on Tokyo’s part without reciprocity from China. Although what appears to be a hardline bargaining approach may play well at home, there is little reason for China to expect that Tokyo will meet all of the conditions it set forth during Foreign Minister Kishida’s visit or that Tokyo will provide other potential benefits in response to Chinese pressure. Additionally, friction over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and maritime disputes in the South China Sea would seem to make it unlikely that there will be any major improvement in China-Japan relations in the near future. Nonetheless, the visit suggests both sides recognize the costs and potential dangers of continued poor relations and are seeking a more stable status quo. With China hosting the G20 in Hangzhou this September, an opportunity awaits for Xi and Abe to find a way to forge a steadier future for China-Japan relations (Japan Times, May 1).
Michael S. Chase is a senior political scientist at the RAND Corporation and an adjunct professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS), Georgetown University and the Pardee RAND Graduate School.
Nathan Beauchamp-Mustafaga is a Project Associate–China Specialist at the RAND Corporation and a former editor of China Brief.
- Foreign Minister Kishida visited Beijing in November 2014 for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit hosted by Beijing, but this was not an official visit, and both sides considered the April 2016 visit his first official visit as foreign minister (Japan Times, November 8, 2014).
- The four founding documents are the 1972 joint statement on the normalization of diplomatic relations, the 1978 bilateral peace and friendship treaty, the 1998 joint statement, and the 2008 joint statement on promoting a strategic and mutually beneficial relationship (People’s Daily Online, January 26, 2013).
- Japanese citizens do not need a visa for up to a 90 day visit to China.
- The Three Principles are “(1) states shall make and clarify their claims based on international law, (2) states shall not use force or coercion in trying to drive their claims and (3) states shall seek to settle disputes by peaceful means” (Japanese MFA, May 2).