GFJ Commentary

September 1, 2023 

Shifting Diplomacy with China

By SUZUKI Yoshikatsu

◆Call from the US Secretary of State

Late at night on June 17, the Foreign Minister's office in Kasumigaseki received a phone call from the United States Secretary of State, Antony Blinken. He called from a private plane on his way to China for his first visit as a cabinet member of the Biden administration. The schedule would have normally been communicated on an administrative level before the visit, but this was an extremely unusual case. Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi returned to Tokyo after completing his local schedule and waited for the call. The conversation lasted only about 10 minutes and provided scant details. Only a brief explanation of the Biden administration’s basic stance was given. It was the feeling of a Foreign Ministry source present at the site that, "We felt like the bottom has fallen out of our world." However, this call from the plane must have revealed the US’s one-sided considerations.

◆The "Trauma" of Japanese Diplomacy towards China

Although the first in-person Biden-Xi summit was held in November of last year, US-China relations dramatically worsened when the US shot down a Chinese reconnaissance balloon in February of this year. Blinken's scheduled visit to China was postponed amidst the hostility between the two countries. In May, however, at the Hiroshima G7 summit, Japan, the US and the EU agreed on dialogue and de-risking with China. They adopted a joint communiqué that stated, "We stand prepared to build constructive and stable relations with China, recognizing the importance of engaging candidly with and expressing our concerns directly to China".
 The G7 endorsement made Blinken's visit to China possible; the Biden administration has finally resumed diplomacy with China. At first, as the information about Blinken's China visit spread in Japan, it evoked the response of "the US is doing this without consultation..." This is unsurprising because there exist "three major cases" of US-China diplomacy that took the Japanese government by surprise. First, was the so-called "First Nixon Shock" of 1971. Then-Secretary of State Henry Kissinger visited China in secret, which was followed by a surprise announcement that Nixon would visit China the following year. Second was the secret visit to China by presidential assistant John Scowcroft (1989) immediately following the Tiananmen Square incident. Third is what is known as "Japan Passing" (1998): the nine-day visit to China by US President Clinton in which he bypassed Japan and South Korea.

◆Vigilance against US-China "Great Power Interests"

Japan's senior generation of diplomats and former Foreign Ministry officials remain traumatized regarding the diplomatic situation with China. The current generation of diplomats, however, with the exception of some from the China School, have no such trauma. "The closeness of Japan-US relations and the importance of Japan in US strategy have changed entirely from what they were previously, so no sentiments regarding ‘bypassing’ exist; officials of the America School have expressed their confidence on the front lines, but one former vice minister for foreign affairs did not conceal his wariness. Although he said that “the Japan-US relationship is deeper now, so it might not be characterized by ‘bypassing’ as it was in the past," but simultaneously, "the US is a country that will do anything if it thinks this is in its own national interest." In other words, since the US and China are military powers in the "nuclear club," and the top two economic powers with the world's highest GDP, there may well be circumstances in which they might reach compromises (leader-level talks) based on "great power interests," which Japan and other countries have no knowledge about, in order to avoid conflict.
 The immediate goal for both sides is to hold a US-China summit at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit in San Francisco in November. The focus will be on whether it is possible to establish mutually beneficial relationships in areas such as advanced technology, where the two sides remain sharply opposed. The Kishida administration is also rushing to prepare the ground for a Japan-China summit as it looks towards the APEC summit in San Francisco. This summer, a proposal is under consideration to dispatch a key Japanese official, Takeo Akiba (Director-General of the National Security Secretariat), to China as it did last year (Jiji Press Comment Liner/Distributed 7/11/2023).

(This is the English translation of an article written by SUZUKI Yoshikatsu, Distinguished Research Fellow of JFIR, which originally appeared on the e-Forum “Giron-Hyakushutsu” of GFJ on July 20, 2023.)