FORTY YEARS ago to the week since Deng Xiaoping normalised ties with Japan by travelling to Tokyo and signing a treaty of peace and friendship, Xi Jinping is feting the Japanese prime minister in Beijing. On October 26th China’s president will treat Shinzo Abe to a fine dinner, following a lavish reception in Mr Abe’s honour the day before at the Great Hall of the People. The trip will yield a flurry of agreements to co-operate economically across Asia. And Mr Abe may take delivery of two adorable panda cubs.
Par for the course? Hardly. Six years ago China’s aggression over the disputed Senkaku islands, which it calls the Diaoyu and wants to wrest from Japanese control, threatened to precipitate a military conflict. Diplomatic relations froze solid. Scarcely a week passed without China hectoring perfidious Japan, as if the peaceable democracy was still jackbooting around Asia. What was previously mutual admiration among ordinary citizens soured into popular scorn. When Mr Abe travelled to Beijing in 2014 to try to ease tensions, Mr Xi offered a reluctant handshake with a pained, puckery expression.
Now the Chinese president is all smiles. Why the change? China can ill afford to discourage Japanese investment and trade. For one thing, Japan is a crucial supplier of machine tools. More pertinent, though, is America’s growing antagonism towards China. Viewing China as an adversary in trade, technology and arms that does not play fair, President Donald Trump is abandoning America’s long-held policy of engagement with China for something more confrontational. China’s diplomacy is very traditional, an adviser to Mr Abe explains. It will never choose two enemies at the same time. Dealing with America is work enough. Japan is allowed out of the doghouse.
A similar logic informs Japan’s wish for rapprochement. It has long taken its alliance with America, essential to its security, for granted. But Mr Trump has unsettled it. In his first act as president, he pulled America out of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-country free-trade area that Japan had hoped would bind America to the region. He has questioned the worth of alliances. And he has launched pell-mell personal diplomacy with North Korea’s dictator, whose missiles threaten Japan. It turns out Japan also does not like two challenges at once.
Some claim Japan risks being squeezed between America and China. Mr Abe cannot become buddies with Mr Xi without risking a black eye from Mr Trump. As Sino-American antagonisms grow, there will surely be a reckoning.
That view rests on a misunderstanding of Japan’s intentions. It is asking almost nothing of China, bar the pandas. The most substantial outcome of the summit is the re-establishment of a swap arrangement between the two central banks. If it is used at all, it is likely that China, with its indebted banks and wobbly currency, would be the supplicant.
Then there is Japan’s growing willingness to be involved with China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Mr Abe is urging Japanese trading houses, insurers and others to look for opportunities that Chinese-led infrastructure creates. The intention is not to abet Chinese diplomacy but to counter it, by boosting Japan’s own soft power in South-East Asia and beyond.
The point, Mr Abe’s people insist, is to show the region it does not have to be dominated by China. The alternative is an open, rules-based and perhaps even democratic order, in which economies are shaped by markets, not mercantilism. Japan plays the responsible international steward.
This strategy has an official name: a “free and open Indo-Pacific”. The alliance with America remains at its heart. Australia is an eager accomplice, and British and French navies supporting actors. One day, Japanese strategists hope, India will also be more assertive. The point of this approach, again, is to counter China.
In the coming months Mr Abe will disguise that. The prime minister needs to get on with his giant neighbour. There is a new emperor to be crowned in the spring. Japan hosts the G20 in Osaka next summer. Mr Xi will make his first state visit to Japan around the same time. And Tokyo hosts the Olympics the following year. One strategist describes Japan’s overtures to China as showing the Chinese its soft underbelly. But the fact is that if Mr Trump’s hard line towards China is meant to re-assert American hegemony in Asia, some of the line’s most ardent backers sit in Tokyo—including the prime minister himself.