NCCU Scholar Tsai Zeng-jia: Abe’s visit to China primarily focused on economic issues

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, left, walks with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang during a welcome ceremony at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, Friday, Oct. 26, 2018.(AP Photo/Andy Wong)

Taipei, Oct. 28 (CNA)-The landmark visit to Beijing by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe from Oct. 25-27 focused more on economics than politics, a Taiwan scholar has said, suggesting Japan is looking to increase its leverage in trade talks with the United States by improving relations with China.

Tsai Zeng-jia (蔡增家), a research fellow at the Institute of International Relations under National Chengchi University, said that from the content of Abe’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang Friday, Japan and China reached more of a consensus on economic issues than political ones.

Politically the two countries remain at loggerheads on numerous issues including the territorial dispute involving the Diaoyutai Islands, an island group in the East China Sea called the Senkaku Islands by Japan and also claimed by Taiwan, Tsai said.

Relations between China and Japan soured in 2012 over the sovereignty of the Diaoyutais, after the Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda’s cabinet moved to nationalize the uninhabited islands, which drew a strong protest from Beijing and triggered massive anti-Japanese demonstrations in several major Chinese cities.

Tsai thought that the timing of Abe’s visit to China, which was the first official visit by a Japanese prime minister to the mainland since 2011, was carefully chosen. It indicated Japan is walking “cleverly the line between China and the U.S.,” the scholar said.

While trying to increasing its leverage in talks with the U.S. by moving closer to China, Japan was also careful not to step into a political minefield amid a rising trade war between China and the U.S., Tsai said.

Abe and Xi displayed a united front on free trade as the Chinese leader called on Abe to join with China in upholding multilateralism and an open world economy, commented the South China Morning Post in a report on Friday.

“Our relationship has encountered a lot of obstacles,” Xi was quoted in the report as saying at the start of his Friday talks with Abe. “It was not a smooth ride. But with our joint effort, the relationship has become more normalised.”

“A healthy relationship between China and Japan serves the basic interests of both countries,” Xi was quoted as saying.

In return, Abe told Xi that he hoped his trip would elevate the China-Japan relationship from competition to cooperation. “China and Japan are neighbors and partners, and we will not be a threat to each other,” he was quoted in the report.

In its Sunday editorial, Taiwan’s leading Chinese newspaper United Daily News (UDN) described Abe’s strategy of normalizing relations with China as being aimed at roping in Beijing so they can jointly resist the trade war triggered by the U.S.

Abe proposed three principles to guide the development of Japan-China relations — coordination, partnership and joint efforts to promote free trade. In other words, his trip to China focused on the promotion of economic cooperation, rather than political reconciliation, the editorial concluded.

As a result of the trade war waged by the Trump administration, China and Japan have set their quarrels aside, signing more than 50 agreements — mostly related to economic issues — during Abe’s visit, it said.

Since Trump took power in 2016, he has asked Japan to share more of the cost of stationing American troops in Japan and to reduce its trade surpluses with the U.S.

Together with the U.S. withdrawal from the regional trade bloc Trans-Pacific Partnership, which sought to block China’s expanding economic influence, Japan is increasingly questioning Washington’s Pacific-Asia strategy, the UDN editorial contended.