A China-Japan Summit With Global Reach
(The Bloomberg View) -- Friday’s summit between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping is the first between the two countries since 2011. It’s an important event. If it does no more than reduce longstanding tensions between the world’s second- and third-largest economies, it will have served a worthy purpose. But there’s good reason for Abe, in particular, to think bigger.
The sudden chill in China’s relations with the U.S. means that Beijing is looking for friends. Abe can seize this opportunity — and use it to nudge Xi toward policies that support global norms of economic and diplomatic cooperation. If he succeeds, Japan would benefit, and so would the rest of the world.
Historical rivals for influence across Asia, China and Japan currently have one frustration in common — Donald Trump. China faces a wall of U.S. tariffs and a firming consensus in Washington that it needs to be checked on every front — military, economic and political. In a smaller way, the Trump administration has bullied Japan as well, forcing it into bilateral trade talks, scheduled to begin in January, that promise to be difficult.
Japan holds special appeal as a possible Chinese ally. Its direct investment in China increased last year for the first time in five years and is still growing. Chinese officials have been flocking to Japan to seek more. And winning over an erstwhile foe such as Abe wouldn’t hurt Xi’s standing as a statesman.
So expect much well-meaning talk about the two nations’ support for free trade, dialogue and global rules. Granted, Xi’s sincerity in this will be questioned, because of China’s failure to abide by the spirit and sometimes the letter of its promises on trade and investment. But Abe’s shouldn’t be.
Almost single-handedly, he revived the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade pact, and he recently signed the world’s biggest bilateral free-trade agreement with the European Union. He has already played a crucial role in defending the liberal international order.
The summit offers Abe a chance to urge China on to a similar path. The two sides reportedly plan to collaborate on as many as 30 infrastructure projects across Asia. Japan insists these will follow the same high standards for transparency and debt sustainability as its other development projects. This would be good, and it could help repair some of the reputational damage China has suffered because of its Belt and Road initiative — a program not noted for clarity or fiscal discipline. It might push China to raise lending standards across the Belt-and-Road map, as it says it intends to. Mentioning the possibility that Japan might join the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank could give Abe additional influence.
Japan should keep pushing to write higher standards into the 16-nation Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, an Asia-wide trade agreement. The goal should be TPP-like conditions on matters such as digital trade and data flows. Tougher issues, such as intellectual-property protections and support for state-owned enterprises, might be better addressed through bilateral frameworks. Xi could even use these talks to address U.S. trade concerns without seeming to bend a knee to Trump.
Some geopolitical red lines aren’t going to budge. Neither Abe nor Xi is about to relax their countries’ claims to the islands Japan calls the Senkakus and China the Diaoyu. And Japan is likely to keep supporting Southeast Asian nations looking to press their own claims against China in the South China Sea. But pursuing closer military ties, including a mooted hotline and defense-related exchanges, is worth doing nonetheless. It could lessen tensions in a dangerous part of the world, encourage further cooperation on North Korea, and help to moderate China’s hawks.
Judge the summit this way: Whatever encourages China to hew more closely to global norms is valuable — not just in calming the region but, with luck, in easing U.S.-China tensions as well. Global interests are at stake when Abe meets Xi.
Editorials are written by the Bloomberg View editorial board.
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