The Newsletter 74 Summer 2016

One Belt, One Road: a Japanese perspective

Hidehito Fujiwara

<p>The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was established under the leadership of China for the purpose of putting into reality the country’s economic vision of One Belt, One Road. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s administration has been consistently skeptical about the AIIB, pointing to the lack of transparency in its management and financing, as well as other issues. Even Vietnam and the Philippines, who are in a harsh territorial conflict with China in the South China Sea, joined the AIIB along with European powers; but Japan, keeping in step with the US, has chosen to stay out.</p>

However, given Japan’s position in Asia, its continuous dismissive attitude to the One Belt, One Road initiative may hurt the country’s economic interests and even diminish its presence as a major power in the region. In fact, from an economic standpoint, it makes more sense for Japan to welcome One Belt, One Road. The reason why the Japanese government has failed to do so lies in its strained relationship with China.

Japan has been suffering from an economic depression for a long time. In contrast, China, despite the shadows cast on its growth these days, has already grown to become the world’s second largest economic superpower, and its military presence is also increasing. Consequently, the Japanese are starting to doubt the sense of superiority they felt over China for many years after the end of World War II. The antagonism over the perception of history, the Senkaku Islands, and other issues cannot be ignored, either. According to the “Survey of Public Opinion on Foreign Relations” released by the Cabinet Office on 12 March 2016, the percentage of respondents who had “no positive feelings” toward China recorded the highest value since 1978: 83.2 percent.

During the first Abe administration, Prime Minister Abe agreed with his Chinese counterpart on the need to build a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests between the two countries. At the time, he received high praise from the Chinese. However, after the Liberal Democratic Party’s (LDP) landslide victory in the 2012 general election and Abe’s return to office, Japanese-Chinese relations froze due to his visits to Yasukuni Shrine and his demonstration of a defiant attitude toward China. Afterward, the Abe administration joined the US-led Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and announced an independent plan to provide 110 billion USD in aid for Asian infrastructure projects—an amount that exceeds the capitalization of the AIIB.

By maintaining a posture of unmasked defiance toward China, the Abe administration is garnering support from many Japanese who feel no affinity toward China. On the other hand, in the aforementioned survey, 73.3 percent of the respondents agreed that “the development of Japanese-Chinese relations is important for the Asia-Pacific region”. In other words, they consider relations with China as essential, even if they don’t have positive feelings toward the country.

China evaluates positively the leading role that Japan has played in regional economic cooperation in Asia and is requesting Japanese participation and support for the One Belt, One Road initiative and the AIIB. China wants to learn from the expertise Japan has acquired throughout the years. In this situation, Japan should not turn its back on China but start cooperating in feasible areas. That is the way to build a mutually beneficial strategic relationship.

Hidehito Fujiwara (藤原秀人), Journalist, Asahi Shimbun (朝日新聞社国際報道部記者) (