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Security rivalry adds to 'strategic distrust' between China and Japan ahead of potential leaders meeting

As Japan's moves to boost defence partnerships with Western nations stoke tensions with China, their leaders could be about to hold their first face-to-face talks.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida's name was not on an official list of leaders that Chinese President Xi Jinping was expected to meet at this week's Group of 20 and Apec summit but Kishida said on Saturday that a meeting with Xi was still being coordinated.

A meeting is likely to take place during the Apec summit in Thailand, while one during G20 in Indonesia remains a possibility, according to Kyodo News.

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The Kyodo report said Kishida was expected to convey to Xi the need for the two countries to build a "constructive and stable" relationship and raise concerns over Taiwan.

If the talks go ahead, it will be their first in-person meeting since Kishida took office in September last year.

The two leaders marked 50 years of diplomatic ties in September with an exchange of messages. Both affirmed their commitment to continue building bilateral ties, with Kishida calling for a "new future" in relations despite the "issues and challenges".

Beijing-Tokyo ties have long been troubled by the nations' wartime history and territorial disputes, while growing geopolitical rivalry in the region between the United States and its allies and China - and a potential conflict in the Taiwan Strait - has deepened the distrust.

Most recently, Japan has sought a closer relationship with Nato, a move that has worried China. Tokyo announced on November 4 it would join Nato's cybersecurity defence platform, after it took part in a Nato summit in June for the first time along with other US allies in the Asia-Pacific.

On Monday, Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian slammed the move, questioning Nato's motive for expanding in the Asia-Pacific and urging Japan to "learn from history" and not damage mutual trust among countries in the region.

Daniel Russel, assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs under former US president Barack Obama, said disagreement over the agenda could be complicating efforts to arrange a meeting.

"Japan is unlikely to simply accept Beijing's terms for a leaders meeting and will insist that issues of concern to Tokyo should be on the agenda. This could explain why an agreement to meet in Bali was difficult to reach."

Bhubhindar Singh, a Japanese foreign security policy expert at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Singapore's Nanyang Technological University, said a meeting between the two leaders would be positive news.

"The Kishida-Xi meeting will focus on both issues where both countries could mutually gain from, as well as controversial ones, such as the Taiwan issue," he said.

"Since this is the first meeting between the two, both will probably only share their official position."

Yoichiro Sato, an Asia-Pacific studies professor at Ritsumeikan Asia Pacific University in Japan, said Xi was in "no rush" to improve ties with Japan because his leadership was secure.

"For Xi, meeting with Kishida is not the top priority. It is a backup option in case a meeting with Biden doesn't happen," he said.

He said Tokyo's relationship with Beijing would likely remain cold after its cybersecurity cooperation with Nato, which he saw as "a stepping stone" for Japan to join the Five Eyes intelligence alliance of Australia, New Zealand, Canada, the UK and the US.

More partnerships with Five Eyes members are under way. Australia and Japan last month signed a security pact to strengthen intelligence sharing and military cooperation, while an agreement that could be signed by the UK and Japan in December would streamline the process for the countries to hold joint military exercises.

"Japan's growing security partnerships aim at both supplementing the US-Japan alliance and anchoring it within the regional security architecture," Sato said.

Zhang Baohui, a Lingnan University professor who specialises in East Asia relations, said Japan was seeking to internationalise its security rivalry with China.

"Japan's expanding relations with Nato have deepened China's insecurity and sharpened the Sino-Japanese security rivalry," he said.

"China has been taking countermeasures ... for example, tightening military cooperation with Russia," he said, adding that the moves had resulted in "strategic distrust between China and Japan".

Singh said China might feel "it is being encircled" as Japan forms more security partnerships with "like-minded" states.

"This is obviously a concern for China," he said. "However, China's concerns are more targeted at the US and its alliance network in the region."

China has been more vigilant about military alliances led by the US to counter Beijing. It has clashed with the Five Eyes as it works together to confront China - from a ban on Huawei Technologies and ZTE equipment to a joint statement condemning Beijing's move to oust Hong Kong opposition lawmakers under the national security law it imposed in the city. That statement prompted Zhao from the Chinese foreign ministry to warn that the "Five Eyes could be blinded" if they undermined China's interests.

The Quad grouping - the US and its Indo-Pacific allies Australia, Japan and India - has meanwhile started to meet more frequently to coordinate on strategy to contain China's rise in the region. After the Quad leaders met in Tokyo in May, China responded with a joint bomber drill with Russia near Japanese airspace over the western Pacific.

Tensions between Beijing and Tokyo have also worsened over Taiwan in recent months, with Tokyo complaining that Chinese missiles landed in Japan's exclusive economic zone during large-scale drills staged by the PLA following US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi's visit to Taipei in August.

Japan condemned China's action, along with its Western allies, and plans to state in a revamped national security strategy by the end of the year that it will not tolerate any unilateral change to the status quo in the Taiwan Strait.

Beijing does not recognise Japan's exclusive economic zone and urged Tokyo to be cautious on Taiwan, saying there is no "grey area" in the one-China principle.

Last year, Tokyo also drafted a joint plan with the US to build an attack base in the Ryukyu Islands - which include the disputed Senkakus that are known as the Diaoyus in China - to cover any Taiwan contingency. It prompted a protest from Beijing, which said its resolve to safeguard its sovereignty should not be underestimated.

Japan has long regarded self-ruled Taiwan - which Beijing claims as part of its territory - as a matter that concerns its own national security. In December last year, former prime minister Shinzo Abe had said that "a Taiwan emergency is a Japanese emergency". A crisis in the Taiwan Strait could seriously impact Japan's trade routes given its close proximity to the island.

Leaders will gather in Bali for the G20 summit on November 15 and 16. Photo: AFP alt=Leaders will gather in Bali for the G20 summit on November 15 and 16. Photo: AFP>

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is expected to raise concerns over Taiwan with Chinese President Xi Jinping at next week's G20 summit in Bali, Indonesia. A meeting between the leaders has not been confirmed but Kishida is seeking to hold talks with Xi at the gathering, according to The Japan Times.

"The potential meeting between Kishida and Xi is positive news. This is timely, as Xi has secured his third term and this is the 50th anniversary of the normalisation of the bilateral relationship," Singh said.

"Since this is the first meeting between the two, both will probably only share their official position," he added.

Xi is expected to travel to Indonesia for the G20 summit - a trip that has yet to be confirmed by Beijing, though the US on Thursday said President Joe Biden and Xi would meet in Bali ahead of the summit.

If Xi and Kishida also hold talks in Bali it will be their first in-person meeting since Kishida took office in September last year. The two leaders marked 50 years of diplomatic ties in September with an exchange of messages. Both affirmed their commitment to continue building bilateral ties, with Kishida calling for a "new future" in relations despite the "issues and challenges".

Economic ties remain robust. China is Japan's biggest trade partner, with the total trade volume reaching a record high of US$371.4 billion last year.

But the economic relationship is under more scrutiny as Japan is pushed by the US to impose chip export controls on China, as Washington has - a move that would have a severe impact on the Japanese economy.

Tokyo Electron, one of the world's largest semiconductor equipment manufacturers, counts the Chinese market as its biggest - a quarter of its sales went to China in the year to March, according to Nikkei Asia.

Asked if Japan was likely to follow the US move, Jennifer Lind, an associate professor at Dartmouth College specialising in US foreign policy on East Asia, said concerns over China varied among US allies, but Tokyo did share Washington's concerns about Chinese military advances.

"[Japan and the US] are two very close partners, with a great working relationship, and are both very worried about China's vision for Asia and for international politics," she said. "While it's unclear just how much US and Japanese interests overlap, there is indeed significant overlap."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2022 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

Copyright (c) 2022. South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.