Japan-China relations and the implications for Australia - with Amy King

Guest: Dr Amy King, senior lecturer, Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, The Australian National University

Host: Elena Collinson, Senior Project and Research Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Japan have long had a fraught relationship, with tensions deeply rooted in history. The rift between the two countries was deepened by an escalation of friction over the East China Sea in 2012. In May 2018 Beijing and Tokyo agreed to set up a security hotline to avoid accidental clashes in the East China Sea. But tensions between the countries over the disputed waters continue to simmer.

Is there evidence that a ‘new era’ in Sino-Japanese relations has begun? What are the driving forces behind this détente of sorts between China and Japan? And what lessons are there for Australia in Japan’s foreign policy strategy?

Dr Amy King joins Elena Collinson to discuss these questions and more. Examining the course of the Japan-China relationship since 2006, it is clear that there have been points of inflamed tensions and mutual negative public sentiment. However, there has been some amelioration in the China-Japan relationship, with an uptick in high-level meetings such as those occurring on the sidelines of the 2014 and 2016 APEC summits, though to a limited extent. A significant shift occurred in mid-2017, as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced that Japan was ready to “engage” with China and an October 2018 meeting produced a range of agreements on infrastructure projects, technology cooperation, intellectual property, and currency swaps.

Even barring the Trump administration’s rejection of multilateral structures like the WTO, embrace of protectionism, and unpredictability in its stance toward allies and threats such as North Korea incentivising cooperation in preserving the global economic order, China and Japan share significant mutual interests compelling rapprochement. For Japan, geographic proximity means China’s rise in the regional strategic order cannot be ignored. Both countries seek to avoid military conflict, and used informal channels such as business delegations to mitigate tensions even before 2017-18. The 30,000 odd Japanese firms operating in China are an important factor in China’s economic health. Moreover, as a key US ally, Japanese engagement with China in areas such as the BRI undermines potential US efforts to isolate China.

Japan’s engagement with China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), meanwhile, is a pragmatic and principled one. With the BRI forming a key part of the Chinese government’s foreign policy and being enshrined in the country’s constitution, it is difficult to underplay its significance. Japan’s engagement has therefore been predicated on projects with high quality infrastructure, transparency in procurement, and non-predatory lending – which it has been creative in finding. Shortly after, Japan signed an MOU with Australia on boosting infrastructure in the Indo-Pacific region, offering Australia a potential case study for engaging with China while advocating for our own principles.

Lessons in foreign policy strategy aside, Australia’s relationship with Japan has functioned over the past decade as a kind of bellwether for Australia’s comfort with the future strategic order of Asia. As Australia grows increasingly concerned with an increasingly assertive China, so too does its investment in its relationship with Japan and multilateral dialogues such as the Quad, even if it is not entirely clear to what end.

Summary written by Michael Zhou, Project and Research Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.

Technical production by Amy Ma, Communications Officer, Australia-China Relations Institute, University of Technology Sydney.

Theme music by Sam J Mitchell.

February 07 2019