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JAPAN: Tokyo reconsiders relationship with China in the post-Covid-19 order

Tobias Harris

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( 6 mins)
  • China’s actions in the midst of the Covid-19 pandemic have led to a pause in the Abe government’s pursuit of closer ties with Beijing, and prompted calls for a reconsideration of Japan’s relationship with China.
  • Worsening bilateral ties could influence the race to succeed Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and lead to longer-lasting tensions with Beijing.

At the start of 2020, Tokyo and Beijing had been anticipating that Chinese President Xi Jinping would make his first trip to Japan for a summit with Abe sometime in the spring, the latest stage of a process of reconciliation and relationship-building that began in earnest in 2017. The pandemic has not only scrambled plans for Xi’s visit – which has been postponed indefinitely – but has also sparked a debate within Japan’s political system about the future of Japan’s relationship with China.

The question is whether this time will be different. The two countries have faced significant periods of tension over the past two decades, but politicians, bureaucrats, and business leaders repeatedly calmed disputes and preserved robust ties between the region’s largest economies. Against a backdrop of widespread distrust of China among the Japanese public, supply chain risks, mounting tensions between the US and China, Chinese naval activities in the East and South China Seas, and Beijing’s moves to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy, China critics within the Abe administration and the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) have more space to call for a broader reconsideration of the bilateral relationship. It may be more difficult for elites most invested in a stable relationship with China to prevail.

Supply chains

Japan, like China’s other trading partners, has begun reconsidering China’s place in its supply chains, particularly for pharmaceuticals, personal protective equipment (PPE), and other medical supplies. To a certain extent, the Abe government, which included incentives for “reshoring” or diversifying supply chains in its stimulus package in April, is following the lead of Japanese businesses, many of which have been pursuing a “China-plus-one” strategy for at least a decade. Japanese firms have longstanding ties with host localities in China and are increasingly in China to sell to Chinese customers, suggesting that, although there is more discussion of a shift from “China-plus-one” to “leaving China,” the Japanese business community is unlikely to embrace decoupling en masse. However, Japanese producers will likely respond favorably to incentives to shift some production to Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) countries, especially Vietnam, or back to Japan.

“Cold war” with China

At the same time, the Japanese government has joined with the US and other allies to push back against China’s role during the Covid-19 pandemic, backing Australia’s call for a neutral review of the origins of the disease and supporting observer status for Taiwan at the World Health Organization (WHO). Until now, the Abe administration has not necessarily been a full-throated public supporter of the Trump administration’s confrontational approach to China, particularly as Abe sought to reach an understanding with Beijing. However, senior Japanese officials are increasingly willing to express their unease with China publicly. Defense Minister Taro Kono, for example, has openly called for shelving Xi’s visit to Japan in light of rising tensions in the East China Sea. The recently published foreign ministry “Blue Book,” meanwhile, upgraded language on Taiwan to refer to it as an “extremely important partner.” LDP backbenchers are similarly calling upon the prime minister to scrap plans to host Xi.

China’s introduction of a new national security law for Hong Kong has been an especially potent catalyst for anti-China mobilization. The Abe administration has formally communicated its “deep unease” about the threat to the “one country, two systems” arrangement, and, after abjuring from co-signing a critical statement with the US, UK, Australia, and Canada, Abe signaled that he wants to take the lead in drafting a G7 statement on Hong Kong. The prime minister has also signaled his openness to Japan’s receiving Hong Kongers leaving the city. In this context, proponents of engagement in the bureaucracy, the upper reaches of the government and ruling coalition, and the business community may have little choice but to lie low until the political winds shift.

Territorial dispute

Newer sources of tension with China have been exacerbated by an uptick of Chinese activity in the waters around the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea. In early May, the Japanese government lodged a complaint with Beijing after Chinese coast guard ships harried Japanese fishing boats near the disputed islands. Chinese coast guard ships have entered the islands’ contiguous zone for 60 consecutive days as of 12 June. There has also been more activity in the skies over the East China Sea, with Japan’s defense ministry reporting that it scrambled fighters in response to Chinese aircraft 64 times in April and 36 times in May. While these activities are not necessarily a departure from the status quo, they have given further grist to China hawks in the government and ruling coalition to press for a course correction in Japan’s relationship with China.

Post-Abe

The shift from reconciliation to confrontation in the bilateral relationship could influence the race to succeed Abe in September 2021. If public and elite attitudes continue to favor a more confrontational approach as the race heats up, it could push all contenders to take a harder line and perhaps enable more hawkish underdog candidates like former LDP secretary-general Shigeru Ishiba or Defense Minister Kono to strengthen their positions at the expense of the presumed frontrunner Fumio Kishida, who is widely viewed as a moderate. In short, the dynamics of a relatively open battle for the premiership could exacerbate bilateral tensions and prevent some of the institutional guardrails from stabilizing the relationship. Shifts in public opinion and a greater appetite for confrontation in both Washington and Beijing make it unlikely that a new prime minister will follow Abe’s blueprint from 2006, when the then-newly elected Abe, despite his hawkish reputation, prioritized a constructive relationship with China and made Beijing his first foreign destination due to public alarm about deteriorating relations with China.