Despite Japanese Prime Minister Abe and Chinese President Xi both taking office about the same time in 2012, all of their meetings have taken place at global conferences with many other heads of state in attendance. This week`s bilateral summit is the first time these two leaders of the 2nd and 3rd largest economies in the world, and of course the leading powers in Asia, will meet one-on-one. Meetings between these two leaders are scheduled for Thursday, 25 October, this week. From the China side, it is clear that President Xi will entice PM Abe to shoulder some of the weight on pressuring the US to back off on trade tariffs – directly taking some pressure off the slowing Chinese economy.
From the Japan side, Mr Abe enjoys a strong relationship with the US, with Japan being described as the cornerstone of US policy in Asia. This is actually written on some US government websites. Also, note that the US currently runs over 38 military facilities in Japan, with the Japanese taxpayer carrying half of the financial burden. Yes, Japan pays for US Marines stationed on the south end of the island chain (with US Air Force bases in the north). Japan and the US also carry out joint Naval exercises with India and Australia as part of a long-term strategic alliance that goes back to WWII. China has an uphill battle with regards to moving Japan on political issues.
Shocked by the tough stance taken by the Trump Administration, China has made Japan a key target for a new and improved friendship that will be spelled out this week. This upcoming summit saw groundwork laid by Chinese Premier Li Keqian who visited Japan in May. The favorable view by Chinese citizens regarding Japan is improving with 74% saying that it “is an important” relationship, up from 68.7% in a recent poll. China does want to befriend Japan.
However, Sino-Japanese relations will have mixed feelings. Sure, Japan does want to participate in some of the Belt and Road projects offered by China but Mr Abe will be cautious. His core power base in the Japanese Diet is filled with some of the most conservative and anti-Chinese political figures in the Japanese government, who as you can guess, are not big fans of the Chinese expansion in the South China Sea. Not a threat now, but possibly to Japan in the future as China and challenge some of the most active trade routes in the world that are important for the Japanese export machine. Either way, these Asian super powers will rub shoulders in the future as Japan has the most powerful Navy in the region while China is spending to catch up.