Japan and China have agreed to expand their economic relations and taken actions to mitigate any potential future military escalation in the East China Sea.

A Brief Snapshot of Recent Japan-China Relations

The relationship between China and Japan has long been a tricky one. Beijing and Tokyo are both striving for regional dominance, but their economies have traditionally been interlinked as well.

During the first visit of a top Chinese politician to Japan in over nine months, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi and his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi agreed on the abovementioned increased cooperation. Both sides assured each other that stable relationships were essential both for the region and for the world.

On the one hand, China and Japan stressed the need to maintain and expand rules-based multilateral trade. This formulation signals support for globalization and trade. The bilateral economic dialogue, which was restarted in spring 2019, is to be continued next year. Climate protection, energy saving, healthcare, and the digital economy will also be topics.

The Chinese-Japanese Relationship is Still a Balancing Act

However, increased cooperation between Tokyo and Beijing remains a balancing act. Both sides made no secret of their different points of view of political issues but tried to defuse the risk of confrontation. The sensitive question of a new date for the state visit of China’s President Xi Jinping — which was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic — was not even addressed.

Instead, both sides affirmed that the new Asian trade agreement called the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) would be implemented quickly. Both countries are fully aware of the historical importance of the RCEP. After all, Japan and China have never been partners in a multilateral trade agreement. This fact is given additional weight by the fact that Japan previously promoted a free trade agreement with the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which was supposed to isolate China.

Xi: China is Considering Joining the TPP

Here, Xi is now building a bridge to Japan and the new US government under President-elect Joe Biden when he said on Friday that China was now considering joining the TPP.

After the US withdrew under President Donald Trump, the contract was signed in 2018 under the abbreviation CPTPP. A logical consequence of these developments would be that China, Japan, and South Korea press ahead with their long-standing negotiations on a trilateral free trade agreement and bring them to a conclusion. The challenges are that the negotiations’ outcome would have to go beyond the RCEP agreements and overcome the heated dispute between Tokyo and Seoul over war compensation.

The fact that Foreign Minister Wang is visiting Japan and South Korea one after the other can be seen as a signal that China seeks to link its economy more closely with Japan and South Korea and expand its political influence through this economic channel.

Japan Still Has Serious Reservations About Chinese Policy

Nonetheless, Japan’s New Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Motegi voiced their concern about China’s new security law for Hong Kong.

Moreover, Motegi called for protecting human rights for the Uyghur minority in the Chinese province of Xinjiang and Japanese prison inmates in China.

The most significant contention point remains the increased presence of the Chinese coast guard near the Japanese Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, which China claims as its own territory under the name Diaoyu.

Motegi called on China to take “positive action” on Chinese ships on the islands. In contrast, Wang demanded that Japan not do anything to complicate the situation in the disputed waters.

Both national positions are unforgiving, but at the same time, Beijing and Tokyo also both fear an uncontrolled escalation. In the past few months, their planes and ships had been chasing each other. Therefore, the foreign ministers agreed to set up direct communication at the military level by the end of the year.