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Shinzo Abe remembers the last time the US passed over Japan for China

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Shinzo Abe Li Kequiang
China’s
Premier Li Keqiang (L) accompanies Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo
Abe (R) to view an honour guard during a welcoming ceremony
outside the Great Hall of the People on October 26, 2018 in
Beijing, China.

Lintao Zhang/Getty
Images


  • Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose grandfather
    was PM when the US isolated Japan from China, arrived in
    Beijing last week for a three-day state visit.
  • This was Japan’s first formal bilateral summit with
    Chinese leaders since 2011 and the first in an era of US
    regional uncertainty under the current administration.
  • US President Trump is acting as an “accelerant in the
    unwinding of Pax Americana,” driving the two Asian nations
    closer, one expert says.
  • Abe met Premier Li Keqiang (李克强) on Thursday, and
    discussed economic cooperation, free trade, and global growth
    and Japan’s role in the Belt and Road Initiative.

It is July 1971.

The Cold War is hot and the US has ordered its client-state and
vanquished former enemy to sit tight on reaching out to communist
China.

What happens next is “seared into the Japanese psyche,” according
to senior fellow at the Lowy Institute and the author of the
just-released
“Asia’s Reckoning,”
Richard McGregor.

Post-war Japanese leaders across the political spectrum had
yearned to be part of what they thought could be China’s looming
economic revival, to staunch the still open wounds of the
unresolved — Japanese and American — brutality of the earlier
wars and to reintegrate into the Asian neighborhood.

“Through the 1950s and 60s, Japan had never stopped wanting to
reach out to the PRC and recognize the PRC,” MacGregor says.

But the US always stepped in.

And then, in the early hours of July 9, 1971, as history more
loudly remembers, Dr. Henry Kissinger, the US President Richard
Nixon’s national-security adviser, flew into Beijing from
Pakistan on a top-secret mission of détente.

“I think they literally gave the Japanese government an hour’s
notice before president Nixon announced on live television
Kissinger was on his way back from Beijing,” MacGregor recently
told the Sinica
podcast.

“And they have never forgiven the US for that in Japan.”

“It sounds like it’s a long time to hold a grudge, but this is an
absolutely fundamental issue of national interest in Japan. They
felt screwed over by their ally — and they don’t forget that,”
McGregor adds.


Shinzo Abe Xi Jinping
Japanese
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping
(right).

Lintao Zhang/Getty
Images


Abe goes to Beijing

Shinzo Abe surely remembered this US backsliding better than most
when he met Xi Jinping on Friday night in Beijing, as both
nations face
US tariffs and escalating trade tensions
.

Abe’s grandfather was the 37th Japanese prime
minister, Nobusuke Kishi, and his father was also the Foreign
Minister Shintaro Abe — both inheritors of Nixon’s legacy.

Most analysts predicted that Abe and Xi, both very strong leaders
with dominant, nationalist leaning personalities, were likely to
sideline their very real historical and territorial grievances —
like
when Japan nationalized the contested Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands in
2012
— and focus instead on creating a more binding economic
relationship.

But now, with an unreliable partner in Washington seen to be
undermining Pax Americana in the Pacific, both leaders had the
entirely unexpected chance to shore up and reshape their shared
opportunities while the US is making itself so difficult to
trust.

“Trump is an accelerant in the unwinding of Pax Americana,”
according to McGregor.

Since his election Trump has reassured Japan of America’s
commitment to defend Japan a total of 28 times, according to data
out of Japan’s foreign ministry, McGregor adds.

“Boy. That’s too many. If you have to tell your partner 28 times
that you love them, they would get very worried.”


Melania Trump and Donald Trump
Donald Trump.
Mark
Wilson/Getty Images


The Trump factor

And with its own economy feeling the pinch from its headline
trade war with the US, China was keen to eke every drop of
investment it could out of Japan, which will work just fine for
Tokyo, which is itself vulnerable to any external whacks that
might destabilize its export-dependent economy.

The last time a Japanese prime minister visited China was seven
years ago, under the leadership of the Democratic Party of Japan,
which has shown a more conciliatory hand to Beijing.

A number of lingering disputes have always presented one
challenge after another for high-level exchanges between the two
countries. These include, but are not limited to, unresolved
territorial questions, the role of comfort women during the
second Sino-Japanese war and right-wing Japanese textbooks that
gloss over Tokyo’s wartime aggression.

“None of these issues have been resolved. Not even close,”
according to Macquarie University’s Dr. Kevin Carrico.

So, what has changed? “I think the Trump factor is very much in
play here. China is facing new and unprecedented pressures in its
international relations and may as a result be eager to improve
the relationship with Japan, which has been quite tense for
years.”

“Whether that is actually possible is another question entirely.”

For once, it seems Xi does not necessarily have the upper hand.

“The CCP regularly stokes and manipulates anti-Japanese sentiment
and has done so very regularly over the past decade and a half,
as a way of letting off steam in society. This works well
domestically, but of course has real implications for the
bilateral relationship,” he told Business Insider.

“Could there be an attempt on Xi’s part to strengthen
Sino-Japanese relations as a buffer against new pressures coming
from the US? Perhaps, but I doubt that Abe would play along with
that,” Dr. Carrico said.


Shinzo Abe
Shinzo
Abe.

Chor
Sokunthea/Reuters


Abe, the ultimate pragmatist

Andrew Chubb is a postdoctoral fellow in the Princeton-Harvard
China and the World Program, based at Princeton University.

An expert on the relationship between Chinese public opinion and
PRC foreign policy, Chubb told Business Insider that Shinzo Abe’s
visit last week should confirm Abe as Japan’s “ultimate
pragmatist” prime minister.

“Despite his strong nationalistic leanings, he has pursued
stability and gradually improved relations with Beijing over most
of the past five years in office and is now looking to seize an
opportunity to extract economic benefits from a China that’s
seeking reassurance in its major trading relationships.”

Chubb said that the Japanese analysts he has put to the question
expected Abe to refrain from pursuing constitutional change,
which would provoke China.

“We know he believes strongly in that agenda, so if he leaves it
aside that’s another manifestation of pragmatism,” Dr. Chubb
said.

Abe arrived in Beijing on Wednesday to kick off what was to be a
three-day state visit. It was Japan’s first formal bilateral
summit with Chinese leaders since 2011.

Abe met Premier Li Keqiang on Thursday, and discussed economic
cooperation, free trade, and global growth and Japan’s role in
the Belt and Road Initiative.

According to the South China Morning Post, Abe dined with Xi
Jinping Friday night, after further talks with Li and a visit to
Peking University in the afternoon.

A business delegation of around 500 industry leaders was under
Abe’s wing and
Reuters
reported 50 fresh memorandums of understanding —
across auto, energy, health care, and finance were expected to be
signed.

Japanese heavy industry is among the once-lauded sectors that
finds itself facing ever-increasing pressure from US military
imports as both Chinese and South Korean firms make strides with
their own commercial shipbuilding.


Earlier this month,
Japan launched its latest line of attack
submarines capable of competing with China in the increasingly
crowded Pacific waters, highlighting just how pragmatic Abe can
be and how an erratic US has made very odd bedfellows out of Abe
and Xi.

Burdened with historical baggage, anxious about China’s growing
naval power and hungry for its closer economic support, Abe finds
himself having to manage a delicate kind of rapprochement that
could threaten to upset its volatile and central security ally,
the United States of America.

Bill Bishop is an American author and producer of the Sinocism newsletter, he told Business
Insider that no matter what curveballs the US president may have
up his sleeve, for now Japan and the US will remain allies and
this trip, historic and unique as it was, won’t change that.

“Abe’s visit is definitely a sign of a thaw in Sino-Japanese
relations, but people should not expect anything too significant.
The fact is Japan and China have a large and important trading
relationship along with a significant territorial dispute in the
East China Sea, so it is good that they are talking and at least
acting a bit more like friends.”

“But I think the Trump factor definitely has the Chinese being a
bit nicer than they would be normally.”

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