Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had a series of meetings with Chinese President Xi Jinping and Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing Friday, and opened a new era of friendship between China and Japan. The two countries agreed to work together on basic infrastructure and economic projects in the third countries including a high-speed railway project in Thailand. This means that Japan decided to take part in the Belt and Road Initiative pursued by President Xi. The improved relations and enhanced economic cooperation between the world’s second and third largest countries bring great challenges to South Korea.
Abe’s visit is the first by a Japanese leader in seven years since December 2011. The United States’ trade pressure has pushed the two countries closer, whose relationship had remained frozen since Tokyo’s nationalization of Senkaku Islands in 2012. With its economy having posted the growth rate of 6.5 percent in the third quarter following a trade spat with the United States, the lowest level since 2009, China is apparently expecting to revitalize its economy and counter Washington’s protectionism through economic cooperation with Japan. Tokyo’s participation in the Belt and Road Initiative will give an impetus to Beijing’s strategy to expand its economic territory, and may develop to the discussion of a bilateral free trade agreement (FTA).
Japan is also in need of limited cooperation with China. The Trump administration has been pressuring Japan to address an imbalance in the bilateral trade, citing the U.S. trade deficit of 68.9 billion dollars in 2017. Prime Minister Abe expects that improved Tokyo-Beijing ties will send a message to the United States that it should loosen its pressure and will also disperse risks caused by Washington through the diversification of diplomacy.
Still, Japan remains highly cautious about not creating a crack in the U.S.-Japan alliance. Conscious of Washington that is against the Belt and Road Initiative, Abe did not officially put his signature to declare Japan’s participation in Xi’s plan. Yet, China and Japan are clearly taking steps to advance their relationship not only in the area of economy but also diplomacy and security. The two Asian rivals are starting to implement a two-track diplomacy, with their long-standing disputes over historical and territorial issues still unsettled.
South Korea should also respond in a flexible manner lest it be isolated in the dynamic development of diplomatic relations in Northeast Asia. In particular, China’s about-face in dealing with historical and territorial issues with Japan may leave South Korea with little room for maneuver in its ties with Tokyo. What is most needed for South Korea in the increasingly flexible dynamics of Northeast Asia is to take a practical attitude in handling relations with China and Japan, based on the solid South Korea-U.S. relationship.