A recent, unexpected rapprochement between China and Japan has emerged more quickly than many observers thought possible. And unlike previous instances since the two countries recognized each other in 1972, the initiative this time seems to have come from the Chinese side. It must be noted, however, that links between Asia’s two richest countries are still far from the previous high point in relations reached during former president Hu Jintao’s landmark visit to Japan in 2008. Moreover, the major reasons behind the warming up of ties have to do with the deteriorating relationship between China and the US as well as dramatic developments in the Korean Peninsula.
During Premier Li Keqiang’s participation in the reconvened trilateral talks held in early May in Tokyo between the heads of governments of China, Japan and South Korea, Li conducted separate discussions with counterpart Shinzo Abe. It was Li’s first-ever visit to Japan as Chinese premier. The most eye-catching achievements of the Li-Abe quasi-summit was the establishment of a “maritime and air liaison mechanism… [so as to] jointly manage and control maritime crisis, in a bid to make the East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.” Even before Li’s tour, it was understood that President Xi Jinping would go on a state visit to Japan next year after his expected participation in the G20 meeting in Osaka. (HKO1.com, May 4). And in a rare gesture, Xi and Abe spoke via phone on May 4 regarding ways they could improve bilateral ties in the wake of celebrations of the 40th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between the two nations (Xinhua, May 4).
At this stage, it is unclear whether such confidence-building measures can by themselves lower tensions. Chinese submarines, naval vessels, jet-fighters and drones have vastly boosted their activities near the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku Islands and in the vicinity of Japan’s Exclusive Economic Zone. (NHK News, April 19; Asahi Shimbun, January 30). Yet it cannot be denied that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) propaganda machinery has reined in nationalistic and inflammatory rhetoric against Japan. For example, Xinhua in early May called for the removal of anti-Japanese movies and dramas—which emphasize Japanese atrocities during WWII as well as the larger-than-life exploits of Chinese soldiers fighting the invaders—from Chinese television. Calling these products “cultural rubbish” and “a blasphemy of the nation’s [collective] memory,” Xinhua said they basically “went against historical common sense” (Xinhua, May 2).
A good gauge of whether a genuine Sino-Japanese détente is in the offing is to compare the on-going amelioration of ties with the achievements notched by ex-president Hu when he visited Tokyo in 2008 to mark the 30th anniversary of the Treaty of Peace and Friendship (hereafter “the Treaty”). The agreement that Hu reached with then-counterpart Yasuo Fukuda (the son of former prime minister Takeo Fukuda, who signed the Treaty on behalf of Japan), was considered a win-win, with sweeping consequences for all aspects of bilateral endeavors (See China Brief, October 17, 2007). Firstly, both parties agreed to pursue “a strategic and mutually beneficial relationship in an all-round way.” Apart from the theoretical acknowledgment of the “East China Sea a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship,” both sides agreed on joint exploration of oil and gas that might be located in undersea spots close to the “mid-point line” in the East China Sea. Equally significant was the fact that the document made no reference to either historical issues or disputes regarding islets claimed by both countries (Xinhua, May 8, 2008). However, the agreement never came into operation due to vehement opposition from anti-Japanese nationalists in China. 
Why is Xi seeking rapprochement with Tokyo? Beijing sees the on-going trade dispute with the US as but a relatively superficial manifestation of efforts by the US and its allies to throttle China’s advancement towards full-fledged superpower status. Washington’s decision last month to ban US manufactures of microchips, software and other core components from doing business with ZTE Corporation—one of China’s flagship high-tech firms—has been interpreted as part of a multi-pronged “conspiracy” to thwart China’s much-publicized Made in China 2025 industrial policy, which envisages the PRC overtaking the US, Germany and Japan in a number of cutting-edge tech sectors by the year 2025 (Apple Daily [Hong Kong], April 23; Xinhuaapp.com, April 4). This is despite US President Donald Trump’s announcement last week that Washington might relent on its devastating punishment of the Shenzhen-based giant.
Beijing wants Tokyo’s support in building a united front of nations opposed to Trump-style trade protectionism. After all, Trump had threatened to levy punitive duties on steel, aluminum and other products from Japan and South Korea as well (Hindustan Times, March 9; Reuters, March 9). At the same time, Beijing hopes to firm up arrangements with Japanese firms for procuring microchips and other core technologies that have remained beyond the reach of China’s tech firms. The fact that NTT DoCoMo, a major manufacturer of chips, announced that it would not sell core technologies to ZTE indicates that a Li-Abe agreement about high-tech cooperation may not pan out in this respect, at least in the short term (United Daily News [Taiwan], May 4).
The Xi administration also wants to upgrade ties with Tokyo in view of fast-shifting realities in the Korean Peninsula. Xi, who has always looked down upon DPRK dictator Kim Jong-un, was shocked by early signs that President Moon Jae-in and Kim might want to cut China out of talks on DPRK denuclearization. As Central Party School professor Zhang Liangui, one of Beijing’s top expert on the Koreas, told the Hong Kong media, it was “foreseeable” that both Seoul and Pyangyang would not want China to get involved in the talks. “This was inevitable because both Koreas have been wanting to cast off Chinese influence,” he said (South China Morning Post, April 29).
Xi’s fears about losing China’s traditional role as the prime arbiter of Korean developments was vindicated by the Panmunjom Declaration signed between Moon and Kim after their historic tete-a-tete on April 27. Both parties envisaged “trilateral meetings involving the two Koreas and the United States, or quadrilateral meetings involving the two Koreas, the United States and China” to achieve peace on the Korean Peninsula (Korea Herald, April 27). This opened the door to a settlement negotiated only among the two Koreas and the US. Prior to the Moon-Kim summit, Xi summoned Kim for secret talks in Beijing in late March, in which he apparently impressed upon the 34-year-old Korean dictator that Beijing would not only provide economic aid to the DPRK but also ensure the safety of the Kim clan (South China Morning Post, March 28; Japan Times, March 28). Less than 40 days later, the two leaders met again for two days in a beachside resort in northeastern Chinese province of Liaoning (Xinhua, May 8).
One line of thinking in Beijing holds that, irrespective of the results reached between Trump and Kim in their mini-summit in Singapore on June 12, final arrangements for major issues such as denuclearization and economic reform for the DPRK have to be endorsed by four-party talks involving the two Koreas, the US and China (Lianhe Zaobao [Singapore], May 8). Despite Japan’s long-standing alliance with the US, the Xi leadership hopes that Tokyo can be persuaded to back the four-party talks, and with them the implicit notion that China remains a critical arbiter of future developments of the Korean Peninsula.
What does the Xi administration have to offer Tokyo? For one thing, given the likelihood that the dismantling of the DPRK arsenal will be an incremental process, Beijing could help the Abe administration by ensuring that short-range missiles that could reach Japan are destroyed as early as possible. For Tokyo this is especially important, since Washington’s top priority will be the removal of long-range missiles that can reach Alaska and the US mainland. Tokyo may also seek Beijing’s help in ensuring that the Kim administration will not demand, at least in the near to medium term, the removal of American troops from South Korea. This is due to Tokyo’s perception that a reduction of US troops in Korea would have a detrimental impact on America’s overall commitment to defending Japan and other Asian nations (Japan Times, May 1; Stripes.com, March 15).
In spite of the devastating damage that Japan inflicted upon China from 1937 to 1945, Tokyo perhaps deserves credit for pulling China out of diplomatic isolation, as well as helping it industrialize in the 1960s and 1970s. The Liberal Democratic Party Government recognized Beijing in 1972, fully seven years before the US government. Apart from ethnic Chinese businessmen, Japanese firms were the first to invest in China during the second half of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). After the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989, then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshiki Kaifu was the first leader of a democratic country to visit China, at a time when the PRC was still boycotted by many Western countries. (Apple Daily, May 11; People’s Daily, December 3, 2004). However, these breakthroughs in bilateral ties, including the 2008 agreement between Hu and Fukuda, took place when Japan was still the most powerful nation in Asia. Given President Xi’s nationalistic tendencies, and evident desire to highlight China’s quasi-superpower status, it remains to be seen whether the traditional symbiotic relationship between the two neighbors can be revived.
Dr. Willy Wo-Lap Lam is a Senior Fellow at The Jamestown Foundation. He is an Adjunct Professor at the Center for China Studies, the History Department and the Program of Master’s in Global Political Economy at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. He is the author of five books on China, including “Chinese Politics in the Era of Xi Jinping (Routledge 2015).”
 One reason why the Hu-Fukuda agreement has never come to fruition is that it also provides for Japanese oil corporations to invest in the Chunxiao Gasfield, which is located to the west of the midway line of the East China Sea. Then-Minister of Foreign Affairs Yang Jiechi noted that Japanese companies investing in Chunxiao were no different from Western films such as Shell and Unocal participating in the exploitation of oil and gas in different parts of China. Yang also emphasized that Japanese firms engaged in the Chunxiao Gasfield would fully abide by Chinese law. (China News Service, June 24, 2008)）Explanations of the authorities, however, failed to satisfy “patriotic” Netizens and other young nationalists. Their vehement opposition to Japan’s involvement in the Chunxiao was one reason why the entire agreement was put on hold. For a discussion of the diplomatic tug-of-war, see, for example, Xinjun Zhang, “Why the 2008 Sino-Japanese Consensus on the East China Sea Has Stalled: Good Faith and Reciprocity Considerations in Interim Measures Pending a Maritime Boundary Delimitation,” Ocean Development and International Law, Vol. 42, 2011, Issue 1-2, pp. 53-65.