Not all analysts believe that the bilateral relationship between China and Japan will be as stable as desired. Yang Bojiang, an expert on Japanese studies from the China Academy of Social Sciences, argued that while Suga will not change Japan’s fundamental policy toward China, based on his past policy record Suga could adopt a more proactive policy in boosting economic ties with China, but will have a tougher stance on political issues.
During Abe’s tenure, Suga was a major supporter of Abe’s policy to attract Chinese tourists, despite strong opposition from security agencies. But Suga is known to support a tougher policy regarding the territorial disputes with China.
According to Japanese officials, Suga expressed concern over the disputed islands in the East China Sea and the newly enacted national security law in Hong Kong in his talk with Xi. Suga also told reporters that he did not discuss plans regarding Xi’s postponed state visit to Japan.
Ignoring Suga’s comments that no doubt irked Beijing, China’s State-run English media outlet China Global Television Network (CGTN) reported that Suga pledged that Japan will work with China to ensure the signing of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership agreement (RCEP) within the year, speed up the negotiation of a Japan-China-South Korea free trade area and maintain the stability of the regional industrial and supply chain.
The report led to some optimism among Chinese experts regarding economic ties between the two countries. But given Washington’s Indo-Pacific agenda, Japan’s eventual stance on the RCEP may be uncertain.
First announced at the ASEAN summit in 2012, the RCEP would include all 10 ASEAN countries and China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand to make the world’s largest trade bloc. But in late November 2019 when India pulled out from the initiative, it dealt a serious blow to the negotiation process. In response, Japan’s Deputy Minister for Economy, Trade and Industry Hideki Makihara told Bloomberg that Japan would not sign the RCEP without India.
Eventually, all the remaining 15 nations have largely completed negotiations on the text of the agreement and the group announced “significant progress” in August, with the deal said to be ready to sign in November 2020.
However, as the US stepped up its efforts to forge an economic and military alliance against China in the region, the fate of the RCEP, a trade deal considered as being led by China, could still be in jeopardy.
In an article published on Project Syndicate, Minxin Pei, professor of government at Claremont McKenna College, argued that the biggest challenge Japan faces is that Tokyo will find it increasingly harder to continue its geopolitical balancing act between the US and China.
Pei said that Japan will face pressure from Washington to tighten restrictions on key technologies that it supplies to China. With more than US$38 billion in direct investment and nearly 14,000 firms operating in China, Japan would find it “practically difficult, economically ruinous and diplomatically costly” to comply with the requests of the US, Pei said.
So far, Washington’s technology bans on Chinese firms have led to a surge in sales in Japan’s semiconductor sector. According to data released by the Semiconductor Equipment Association of Japan (SEAJ), between April and August, monthly sales of Japan-based semiconductor firms experienced an average 20 percent increase year-on-year, to a large extent driven by increasing demand from China. But as Washington continues to tighten the screw, Japan’s semiconductor sector could soon feel the squeeze.
On the security front, Pei said that in the next few years, Tokyo could face increasing pressure from the Pentagon to deploy medium-range US missiles on Japanese soil, something that could trigger a crisis between China and Japan. “These troubles illustrate once again the plight of a country squeezed between two dueling geopolitical giants - and the scale of the diplomatic challenge facing Japan’s new prime minister,” Pei said.