Japan a natural partner in BRI development
Ren Yuanzhe is an associate professor, department of diplomacy and foreign affairs management, China Foreign Affairs University and research fellow at the CCERRI think tank, Zhengzhou. Zhu Rongsheng is a PhD candidate at China Foreign Affairs University.
At a symposium marking the fifth anniversary of the Belt and Road initiative (BRI) in Beijing on August 27, President Xi sent out a very clear signal on the next priority of jointly advancing the initiative - realizing its high-quality development. In this process, Japan is a natural partner and can be critical in helping reach the objective.
Of the more than 100 countries and international organizations that have signed Belt and Road cooperation documents with China, Japan seems quite unique. In the first few years, Japan's stance toward BRI was ambivalent and full of misgivings. The country preferred to work in close association with the US, Australia and other allies to create other mechanisms to compete with and even replace China's initiative.
The position was dramatically reversed in 2017. An important sign of Tokyo starting to embrace BRI is Liberal Democratic Party top leader Toshihiro Nikai attending the Belt and Road forum for International Cooperation in May 2017 with a letter from Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. In June 2017, Abe commented positively on BRI in a speech to Diet. When meeting with Xi at G20 Hamburg summit in 2017, Abe said that Japan hopes to deepen cooperation with China in the fields of trade, finance, tourism and discuss the possibility of cooperation related to the framework of BRI.
When Chinese Premier Li Keqiang visited Japan in May this year, both leaders agreed to cooperate in a third country and establish a work mechanism under the framework of the Japan-China high-level economic dialogue. On May 31, Ning Jizhe, vice chairman of China's National Development and Reform Commission, said in Bangkok that Thailand, China and Japan "will strengthen coordination and cooperation, benefit from each other and build the EEC [Eastern Economic Corridor] into a corridor of cooperation, win-win, development and friendship, and make positive contributions to increasing multilateral practical cooperation, promoting regional economic growth and enhancing the well-being of people in Thailand."
There is no doubt that cooperation in BRI serves not only regional development, but also reflects a warming China-Japan relationship. Since Abe assumed the second term as prime minister, the political rivalry between two countries echoes by Japan joining the US' pivot to Asia, balancing against China. However, Japan's recent positive attitude to BRI is shifting the trend and enhancing the development of bilateral relations, which offers a good environment for widening cooperation in business.
China and Japan are inseparable partners, especially in business. Both countries' companies have their own features in terms of industrial structure, and are highly complementary in terms of economic system. China possesses the advantage of capital, human resources and efficient management while Japan has obtained decades of experience and developed technologies in international cooperation. Japan's support and cooperation could enhance the efficiency and quality of the ongoing BRI projects. There is tremendous space for Tokyo and Beijing to help deliver more rapid and sustainable growth in the fields of energy and environmental protection, industrial structure optimization, logistics and so on. China-Japan cooperation under BRI can avoid unhealthy competition, letting each country exercise comparative advantage, reducing cost and increasing efficiency.
Several Japanese companies have boarded the Belt and Road train. Nippon Express set a very good example. It has been using the Eurasian rail route to carry cargo from China's east coast through Central Asia to Europe, giving Japanese companies an opportunity to sell their products to the world. According to NIKKEI Asian Review, "It takes about 15 to 18 days for a train to carry goods from an eastern Chinese city like Shanghai to Germany and surrounding areas. The cost is about $5,000 to $6,000 per 40-foot container. Shipping by sea costs about half of that but takes almost twice as long. By air, the shipment would take a few days but cost more than twice as much. Transportation by rail hits a cost and time sweet spot. It is also less prone to delays."
Generally, the strategic competition between China and Japan cannot be completely done away in the short term. Japan is hedging against BRI with closer engagement with US President Donald Trump's free and open Indo-Pacific strategy. Most Japanese think their country's alliance with the US continues to function as the cornerstone of regional peace and stability. Economically, Japan is also attaining her relative advantage by promoting negotiation of Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and EU-Japan Economic Partnership Agreement in cross-regional economic integration. However, working with China and jointly promoting BRI will definitely give new impetus to enhance Japan's position in Asia in the future and even in the global geopolitical and geo-economic landscape, and increase opportunities for Japanese companies to extend their business in Asia.
This looks familiar for us from history. Back to the Silk Road thousands of years ago, one of the terminals in the orient was in Nara of Japan. The country embraced an advanced civilization and was connected to the world through China and India and further inside Central Asia along the Silk Road. It traded for prosperity, cultural exchange and knowledge of technology, bringing development to the country. Even today, we can still find features in the city proving that the cooperation has brought long-lasting prosperity. History seems to be echoing that Japan is walking on a promising road by warming to cooperation with BRI.
"It does not differentiate countries by ideology nor play the zero-sum game. As long as countries are willing to join, they are welcome," Xi said during the BRI symposium on August 27. Japan's engagement and China-Japan cooperation have shown the huge potential for wider cooperation in the next stage of jointly promoting BRI.