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APEC Meetings: Fragile, Handle with Care

What is happening?

This year’s Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in San Francisco was, just like every summit, full of meetings. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida met, among others, US president Joe Biden, South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, and Chinese President Xi Jinping, whom he met face-to-face for the first time in a year, which adds to the overall picture of the current Japan-China relations. To compare, Kishida’s meeting with Yoon was already their seventh in 2023, demonstrating their commitment to improving traditionally fragile Japan–South Korea relations. Their effort is stimulated by China’s growing assertiveness, territorial claims, and close ties with countries like Russia or North Korea, whose missile tests pose a threat to both South Korea and Japan.


What is the broader picture?

Japanese imperialism, dating from the second half of the 19th century to the end of World War II, continues to negatively affect Tokyo’s relations with some of the Indo-Pacific countries. After the war, it took considerable time to reestablish mutual relations and even longer to improve them. For example, the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and the People’s Republic of China was signed and went into effect in 1978, but even 45 years later, time did not heal all the wounds. On the contrary, new challenges arise.

China and Japan account for Asia’s two largest economies, which means that trade is one of their most significant areas of cooperation. At the same time, the tension remains high. China has recently curbed exports of chipmaking metals like gallium and is expected to restrict exports of graphite, used in batteries, in December. Japan restricted exports of some chipmaking equipment as well. In the summer, China banned imports of all Japanese seafood products when the country started releasing treated radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant into the ocean. China also keeps arresting Japanese nationals on the grounds of its vague espionage laws, as it most recently happened this October to an employee of Japanese drugmaker Astellas Pharma. Kishida urged Xi to drop the ban on seafood products and release the detained businessman. At the same time Xi, according to summaries from the meeting, said that Japan should take China’s concerns over the Fukushima water discharge seriously without mentioning the fate of the arrested Japanese national.

Apart from trade, there are also tensions regarding territorial affairs. China claims sovereignty over most of the South China Sea, the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea that are administrated by Japan, and over democratic self-ruled Taiwan. During the meeting with Xi, Kishida stressed the importance of peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait to the international community, including Japan, for which Taipei expressed gratitude.


Why does it matter?

Kishida and Xi agreed on staying committed to a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” referring to a statement from 2008, whose purpose was to ensure frequent leadership exchanges between Japan and China. Both sides showed willingness to cooperate on the improvement of their economic ties, for example, by holding talks on export controls. As for the Fukushima issue, they agreed to try to resolve it through consultations. Yet, the one-hour-long meeting between Kishida and Xi did not result in any concrete progress over any of the divisive political issues.

In contrast, Kishida also met with President Biden and President Yoon to build on their Camp David meeting this August, where they agreed on strengthening of their trilateral cooperation to better face common challenges, one of which is, on varying levels for each of them, also China.