At first glance, one could imagine that China and Japan are getting ready to thaw the decade-long chill in their relationship. Diplomats from both countries have been busily preparing for a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe in late October. The meeting will commemorate the fortieth anniversary of the Japan-China Peace and Friendship Treaty as well as provide a forum for companies from both countries to discuss how they can cooperate in places where China has extended its “Belt and Road” Initiative. It will be the first time a Japanese prime minister will travel to China for a bilateral meeting since December 2011.
In the intervening years, much has changed. China’s once seemingly unending economic ascent has sputtered. China now faces further headwinds from a nasty trade dispute with the United States and a mountain of debt—at a time when global growth does not offer an easy way out. Meanwhile, China’s neighbors have grown more wary of it. They have seen cases where closer economic engagement with it has created higher trade deficits and levels of indebtedness. They also have witnessed China’s international behavior shift from being generally cooperative to confrontational and sometimes threatening, especially in the South China Sea.
Japan has changed too. When Abe became prime minister in 2013, Japan’s economy was stalled and the thought of Japan becoming a more “normal country”—that is, one that can exercise the full range of government power without the constraints placed on it after World War II—was still blue-sky-over-the-horizon. Today, Japan has resumed growing, albeit at a slow pace. It also has expanded its self-defense forces and coast guard to not only protect its maritime borders, but also to protect its sea lanes of communication to the Indian Ocean. Indeed, since he began his latest stint in office, Abe has diligently expanded Japan’s economic and security ties across the Indo-Pacific region, from India to Australia.
As to why Tokyo has felt the need to be more active abroad has much to do with China. Hence, the two countries have jockeyed in not only the East China Sea, where they have a dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in China) Islands, but also places like Sri Lanka. There, Japan has expanded its footprint after China bruised its relationship with Colombo over the construction of a port at Hambantota—a project which produced little but a big rise in Sri Lanka’s external debt and ended with a Chinese state-controlled firm in possession of a 99-year lease to the port (and suspicions that China might one day turn the port into a naval base). As an economic counter, Japan and India offered Sri Lanka participation in their Asia-Africa Growth Corridor scheme. And as a more tangible sign of Japan’s interest, Tokyo donated two coast guard patrol craft to Sri Lanka in August 2018. Not to be outdone, China gifted the Sri Lankan navy with a retired Jiangwei-class frigate the following month.
Given such competitiveness, Japan’s interest in cooperating with China’s “Belt and Road” Initiative may seem peculiar. After all, Japanese involvement could give a boost to the initiative, which so far has failed to attract other leading regional powers. Surely, at a practical level, Japan probably hopes its cooperation will help its companies gain greater access to parts of Asia where they have a weak presence. But viewed through a security lens, Japan might believe that its cooperation will better position it to assess Chinese aims and keep tabs on them. Indeed, one of the places where Japan, through its international cooperation agency, may be trying to do just that is Hambantota.
Certainly, when Abe and Xi meet, they will do so on more equal footing than they would have had it occurred at the beginning of Abe’s term. To be sure, one can expect plenty of diplomatic pleasantries. But do not expect the meeting to herald the end of strategic competition between China and Japan.
One need only to recall that Abe and Xi had hailed a “fresh start” to their countries’ relationship in 2017 when they agreed to work more closely on North Korean denuclearization. That did not stop China from sending a Shang-class nuclear attack submarine through the Miyako Strait near Okinawa in early 2018. Nor did it stop Japan from dispatching its newest and largest warship—an Izumo-class helicopter destroyer (really, a light carrier)—into the South China Sea for a naval exercise with the U.S. aircraft carrier Ronald Reagan in September 2018.
An optimist could argue that Sino-Japanese relations might be on the mend. But a realist would say that its recovery remains far from complete.
 The initiative’s name has been iteratively truncated from the original moniker of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-Century Maritime Silk Road.