TOKYO — For the first time in many years, Beijing’s Tiananmen Square was covered with red and white Japanese flags. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had descended on China’s capital accompanied by several hundred Japanese businesspeople, eager to sign deals after years of hesitation.
A highlight of Abe’s trip, which began on Oct. 25, was a ceremony at Beijing’s Great Hall of the People celebrating the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Sino-Japanese peace and friendship treaty.
This year marks not only four decades since China and Japan pledged mutual nonaggression, but also the 40th anniversary of ‘reform and opening-up,’ the groundbreaking economic policy led by China’s paramount leader Deng Xiaoping that started China’s rapid economic rise and lifted hundreds of millions out of poverty.
In fact, the ‘reform and opening up’ policy was closely related to peace with Japan and the development aid that Tokyo started providing to China in 1979.
Two months before the launch of his new economic policy, which came at the end of 1978, Deng visited Japan to finalize the peace and friendship treaty. He rode one of the famed shinkansen bullet trains and marveled at its comfort and speed. “This is fast!” he remarked.
China had been closed to the outside world following the 1966-1976 Cultural Revolution. For the new era, Deng chose Japan as China’s gateway to the wider Western world. He asked for Japanese loans to help develop China’s still-poor economic infrastructure.
Abe’s visit 40 years later was freighted with meaning for Chinese President Xi Jinping. The ending of development aid from Japan to China, now that the latter’s economy has overtaken the former’s in size, was symbolic of the end of an era, the Deng Xiaoping era. It ought to augur well for Xi, who is trying to usher in a new era of his own.
But the circumstances in which Xi finds himself, especially the tough trade war with the U.S., significantly reduces his leeway to conduct foreign policy. That is probably the reason why his summit with Abe yielded no memorable breakthroughs.
An academic at a university in Beijing said something noteworthy: “Since last year, we Chinese universities were considering holding a big event to mark the 40th anniversary of ‘reform and opening-up.’ Permission to hold such an event never came from the authorities.”