Since the beginning of the COVID-19 outbreak, various politicians in the West have blamed China for the virus, criticizing the Southeast Asian country for not taking necessary precautions. The same judgements were also made against one of the key subjects of this pandemic era, the World Health Organization.
Criticism of the WHO
The agency is accused of being under the strong influence of Beijing’s Communist Government, a criticism mainly supported by Western countries such as the United States under Donald Trump and France under Emmanuel Macron. Despite these views one of the main political rivals of China, Shinzo Abe’s Japan, contrasted the US President and many others and showed his support for the WHO by saying: “There’s only the WHO that can serve as an international institution” against the Covid-19 pandemic. In addition to these words, Abe refrained from blaming Beijing for the pandemic, showing that his country seeks a balance within the regional political rivalry.
Abe’s Decision Not to Blame China
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s prudent politics on China was clear during the Covid-19 era. In contrast with one of his main allies, President of the United States, Donald Trump; Abe never called the Covid-19 as the “Wuhan virus” or “Chinese virus.” The same stance by the Abe government towards the World Health Organization shows that Japan seeks to improve its relations with its one of main regional rivals, China.
It is not clear if Abe wants a long term normalization between Tokyo and Beijing or it is just a temporary approach, however the sign of this rapprochement is clear in many areas. Despite its cancellation due to the Covid-19 pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping was due to visit Japan to meet Abe and Emperor Naruhito. Xi’s state visit had paramount importance as it was about to become the first visit in more than 10 years. Japanese sources claimed that the visit has not been cancelled but only postponed, pointing out that global anti-China campaigns are not shifting Tokyo’s path.
Abe also showed his neutrality on China and the World Health Organization during a virtual meeting with his counterparts from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) on 14th of March. During the meeting Japanese Prime Minister stressed: “Cooperation between ASEAN and countries in East Asia is key as we work to contain and bring an end to the spread of infection.”
Tokyo and Beijing’s COVID-19 Rapprochement
The improving ties between Tokyo and Beijing were shown not only by the actions of the political leaders but it is also evident in other areas. Some of the members of Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party donated their salaries to China, aimed at supporting the country’s policies against the Covid-19 outbreak. On many occasions, both Southeast Asian nations helped each other by sending various medical supplies such as gloves, masks and sanitizers.
Even the usually aggressive tone between Japanese and Chinese internet users seems to be normalizing these days, leaving messages of support and conciliation on social media platforms. The deepening friendship between locals of both countries was also praised by Chinese State Councillor and Foreign Minister Wang Yi in a phone conversation with his Japanese counterpart Toshimitsu Motegi:
“Though miles apart, we are under the same sky,” Yi said, also not hesitating to praise Japan’s achievements during the pandemic and thanking Tokyo for the assistance.
Challenges to Resetting Sino-Japanese Ties
The examples that we mentioned above show us that there is a great chance for both Japan and China to find a common ground in many fields, which may contribute in forming a real alliance during and after the COVID-19 pandemic.
Despite the positive developments, it is also fair to say that there are also some challenges to overcome for both countries, if what they’re seeking is a long-term cooperation. During the pandemic period, Abe has been criticized for having a soft-stance against the outbreak and accused of not taking the matter seriously. Criticism against Abe caused his support to fall in opinion polls, speculating that he may face serious threats from influential political figures such as Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike.
Despite Abe’s conciliatory tone, within the LDP there are still some voices that don’t share the Japanese Prima Minister’s vision, criticizing China and the WHO. We can remember the moment when Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso slammed the Head of the WHO Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, showing a clear contrast with Abe. The latest criticism against the Japanese government came from both of its neighboring countries, China and South Korea, when Abe made a ritual offering to Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen as a symbol of Japan’s past militarist policies which caused enormous bloodshed in China.
The relationship between Japan and China is influenced by ‘ghosts from the past,’ which obstruct the complete normalization of ties. Despite the difficulties, both Abe and Chinese President Xi have an opportunity that most of their predecessors didn’t have.
Considering the uncertain future post-COVID-19 pandemic, both countries are aware that having more support may facilitate their political, economic and social recovery once the global crisis will come to an end. So why would this rapprochement not work if it’s profitable for both states? The answer is perhaps hidden in the length of China’s global isolation from one side and how much Abe’s status quo will last on the other, especially during the post-COVID-19 era.