Jan 20, 2021 05:18 PM

Japan’s New China Envoy Says Two Countries Need to Break Cycle of Ups and Downs

Japan’s new Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi. Photo: Embassy of Japan in China
Japan’s new Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi. Photo: Embassy of Japan in China

Japan’s new envoy to China called on Tokyo and Beijing to break the cycle of ups and downs in their relationship, as Japan undergoes it first leadership change in nearly eight years.

In a written interview with Caixin, Japan’s new Ambassador to China Hideo Tarumi said the two countries should focus on the battle against the coronavirus before holding high-level talks. President Xi Jinping had planned to make his first state visit to Japan in the spring of 2020, but it canceled due to the pandemic.

Tarumi envisions bringing relations between the two countries into a new phase. “I believe Japan and China need to graduate from the era where the bilateral relations deteriorate fundamentally immediately after a problem arises or suddenly improve, or where business is affected by the turbulence in the relations," he said.

Observing turbulent Sino-Japanese relations over the past decade, the 59-year-old veteran diplomat said the good and bad times in the bilateral relations come “alternately,” and we should not “overreact” in each situation. Tarumi has spent most of his 35-year career working on China issues, and has been previously posted to Beijing, Hong Kong and Taipei.

Last September, his ambassadorship was approved by the cabinet of former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, whose tough stance on China was clearer than the current government under Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. The new ambassador arrived in Beijing in late November.

Meanwhile, Tarumi also vowed that Japan will “say what it should say” in coming dialogues.

As for the prospect on the China-Japan-Korea trilateral negotiations on free-trade agreements (FTA), Tarumi said a trilateral trade pact must be a high-standard agreement that exceeds the level of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), which was signed in November by 15 member countries, including China and Japan. “It is necessary to first work on the early entry into force of the RCEP Agreement and to assess how it is implemented.”

Shortly after the conclusion of the RCEP negotiations, President Xi said China will “favorably consider” joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a mega-free trade zone initiative promoted by Japan.

Asked about the so-called “Quad” framework consisting of the U.S., Japan, Australia and India, Tarumi elaborated that the four members are supposed to discuss a wide range of issues to facilitate concrete cooperation on a common agenda, such as high quality infrastructure, maritime security and counter-terrorism measures, in addition promoting the “free and open Indo-Pacific” concept. He denied it targets any specific country.

Ahead of the inauguration of the new American president, Tarumi expressed Japan’s expectation for “constructive discussions” between China and the U.S.

A full text of Caixin’s interview with Tarumi follows below:

Caixin: In the transition from the Abe cabinet to the Suga cabinet, which element do you think is stronger for Japan’s China policy, continuity or change? Prior to your appointment as Japanese Ambassador to China, did Prime Minister Suga reveal to you the principles of his China policy?

Tarumi: First, I would like to review Japan-China relations over the past decade or so. For three years, since 2008, I was the head of the China Division of the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs. In 2008, the Japanese and Chinese leaders held eight meetings in one year, and in 2009, they held seven. This frequency seems unthinkable today. Since then, Japan-China relations have regressed considerably, but with the second Abe administration coming to power in 2012, Japan-China relations returned to the recovery track. And in 2019, through the exchange of visits between Prime Minister Abe and President Xi Jinping, Japan-China relations can be said to have returned to a “normal track.” Now, some analysts believe that Japan-China relations are heading for difficult times again, partly due to the impact of the recent U.S.-China relationship. However, as I explained, the good times and bad times in Japan-China relations come alternately. I don’t think we should overreact to each situation.

Shortly after assuming office, Prime Minister Suga held his first Japan-China telephone summit meeting with President Xi Jinping, in which I also participated. The Chinese side expressed its willingness to continue to develop Sino-Japan relations. And Prime Minister Suga said, stable Japan-China relations are extremely important not only for the two countries, but also for the region and the international community, and hoped that both sides would work together to fulfill responsibilities.

Since taking office, Prime Minister Suga has made it clear that he wants to maintain stable relations with China and other neighboring countries on the basis of the Japan-U.S. alliance. Does this mean that he will follow the default line of “America first, China later”?

Japan and China play an important role in Asia and are the second and third largest economies in the world, so they need to take great responsibility for regional peace and stability. Stability in Japan-China relations is extremely important, both from the standpoint of Japan’s national interests and from the regional perspective. I believe it is important to deal with the outstanding issues of concern appropriately and build a stable and constructive Japan-China relationship, thus solving problems one after another.

The Japan-U.S. relationship is an alliance. The Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for Japan. Also, the U.S. and China are the world’s first and second largest economic powers. At a time when the world is facing the unprecedented problem of the Covid-19 pandemic, it is extremely important for the U.S. and China to build a stable relationship, whether from the viewpoint of Japan’s national interests or the peace and stability of the international community.

I believe from the viewpoint of our national interests it remains important for Japan to communicate closely with China while maintaining strong relationship of trust with the U.S., our ally, and to work together with China to actively fulfill their responsibilities as major powers toward building a free, open, and fair order based on international rules. We will continue carefully watching the direction of U.S.-China relations after the inauguration of the new U.S. president, and expect that constructive discussions will take place between the two countries.

Although Sino-Japanese relations have gradually improved in recent years, they have stagnated in 2020 and there is no mood for high-level exchange due to the Covid-19 pandemic and other factors. In your opinion, is there still sufficient will on the Japanese side to continue to move forward with upcoming high-level exchanges? If the Japanese side still has the will to work with the Chinese side, when do you expect such an opportunity to arrive?

It goes without saying that high-level dialogue between Japan and China is necessary. At the Japan-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in November 2020, we reaffirmed the importance of continued high-level communication. However, considering the current situation, I think we should first focus on abating the coronavirus pandemic.

The Tokyo Olympics will be held in the summer of 2021. The success of the Tokyo Olympics and the quarantine experience will be very relevant to the preparation for the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. In order to successfully host these two Olympic Games, is Japan willing to cooperate with China and share the know-how of Covid-19 prevention amid large-scale events?

Asia is expected to host two Olympic and Paralympic Games consecutively — first, the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo in 2021, and then the 2022 Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games in Beijing six months later. In addition, 2022 will mark the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Japan and China. We will welcome this milestone year, significantly important from the viewpoint of the history of Japan-China relations.

Both countries have confirmed at a high level that they will continue to cooperate with each other for the success of the two Olympic and Paralympic Games. I myself, in my capacity as a Japanese Ambassador stationed in Beijing, would like to contribute to the success of the Tokyo Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games and the Beijing Winter Olympic and Paralympic Games. To this end, I would like to communicate with the Chinese side.

How do you assess the impact on Japan and Japanese companies of the recent economic and high-tech frictions between China and the U.S.? Do you feel any momentum of Japanese companies in China wanting to relocate their production facilities to other countries or return to Japan? The Japanese government has launched a policy of subsidizing Japanese companies to relocate their supply chains. What is the intention of the Japanese government? It appears that the Japanese government intends to expand this budget. How much will this budget increase to?

The U.S. and China are the world’s first and second largest economic powers, respectively. I am aware that there are confrontations between the two countries in the areas of trade and high technology. Considering the enormous impact of the U.S.-China relations on Japan and the global economy, I believe it is extremely important that the U.S. and China establish a stable relationship. We expect that the two countries will advance a constructive dialogue under the next U.S. administration.

In addition, I would like to point out that our program to strengthen the supply chain is designed to encourage Japanese companies to diversify their production bases according to their own judgment in order to enhance the resilience of their supply chains and that the program does not target any particular country or region.

Japan was the first to introduce the Indo-Pacific initiative. With the support of the U.S. and Australia, it is expected that the cooperation among Japan, the U.S., Australia and India will be further deepened. Should China be prepared for the Japanese side to raise views on various international issues that are different from China’s more frequently than in the past?

It is important to realize a rules-based, free and open order in the Indo-Pacific region to ensure peace and prosperity for the entire region and the world as a whole. In this light, Japan intends to work together with other countries to achieve a “free and open Indo-Pacific.”

The framework of Japan, the U.S., Australia, and India is a forum to promote the concept of “free and open Indo-Pacific” and discuss a wide range of issues to facilitate concrete cooperation on common agenda, such as high quality infrastructure, maritime security, and counter-terrorism measures, and it does not target any specific country.

On the other hand, a stable relationship with China is extremely important not only for the two countries, but also for the region and the international community. Japan will make use of opportunities of high-level contacts to say what it should say while also working together with China to address common challenges.

Taiwan is a sensitive issue from the perspective of Sino-Japanese relations. Do you think that the Taiwan issue will become a flashpoint between China and Japan during your tenure as ambassador?

With regard to the relationship with Taiwan, the Japanese government’s position that it will maintain its relationship with Taiwan on the basis of a non-governmental, working-level relations based on the 1972 Joint Communiqué between Japan and China has been consistent and has not changed at all.

You are the proposer of the concept of “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” between China and Japan. Do you think the concept is still valid in the China-Japan relations of today? There is an expectation that China and Japan will sign a fifth political document during President Xi Jinping’s visit to Japan. How far along is this discussion at this point? If the document does come to fruition, in what direction do you think it will go?

As you know, when the first Abe administration took office, Japan and China agreed to establish a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” and I was involved in the conception of this idea. The significance of this concept lies in the idea that building a stable relationship with the other side brings strategic benefits to one’s own country. I believe that the main spirit of this concept will not change in the future.

However, looking at the current Japan-China relations, it is difficult to say that a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests” has been established between the two countries. I believe that it is important to continue to develop exchanges and cooperation from a strategic perspective while properly handing the outstanding issues of concern between the two countries, and to lift Japan-China relations to a new stage.

I believe Japan and China need to graduate from the era where the bilateral relations deteriorate fundamentally immediately after a problem arises or suddenly improve, or where business is affected by the turbulence in the relations. I firmly believe it is important to build a stable relationship between the two countries on the basis of mutual recognition that it is in our strategic interest to stay in touch with each other as neighbors who cannot move.

How do you assess the progress of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and the China-Japan-Korea FTA negotiations? Since South Korean President Moon Jae-in took office, mutual trust between China and South Korea has deepened, but Japan-South Korea relations appear stagnant. Do you feel anxious about the proximity of China and Korea?

At the Japan-China Foreign Ministers’ Meeting held in November 2020, both sides agreed to cooperate for the early entry into force of the RCEP Agreement that was recently signed. The Japan-China-Korea FTA must be a high-standard agreement that exceeds the level of the RCEP Agreement to a considerable extent, including in terms of rules. We believe that it is necessary to first work on the early entry into force of the RCEP Agreement and to assess how it is implemented.

I would like to refrain from commenting on China-Korea relations from the standpoint of the Japanese government. As for Japan-Korea relations, there are always outstanding issues of concern between neighboring countries, and there are indeed various difficult issues between Japan and the Republic of Korea. This is precisely why, the Japanese government would like to further strengthen communication between the diplomatic authorities of the two countries and solve these issues through dialogue.

Since 2018, Japan has not been invited by South Korea and North Korea in the negotiation of the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula. Does Japan intend to seek a “seat” for itself in the denuclearization process? If so, will Japan cooperate with China in this regard?

The intention of your question is not clear. In any case, there is no change in Japan’s approach of seeking to normalize its diplomatic relations through comprehensively resolving outstanding issues of concern such as the abductions, nuclear and missile issues as well as settlement of the unfortunate past, in accordance with the Japan-DPRK Pyongyang Declaration.

Going forward, we will continue to work closely under the Japan-U.S. and Japan-U.S.-ROK frameworks, while cooperating with China and Russia and the rest of the international community, and seek the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula through the full implementation of the relevant UN Security Council (UNSC) Resolutions.

In particular, we exchanged views with China on the recent situation in North Korea at the Japan-China Foreign Ministers’ meeting in November 2020, and agreed to work together for the denuclearization of the Peninsula and confirmed the importance of the full implementation of the relevant UNSC Resolutions.

You are known for your networking skills. Do you have any tips about this? How do you feel about your new assignment? It has been a while since you last worked in Beijing. Is there anything you want to do or places you want to visit in particular this time?

Diplomatic relations or relations between countries are, to put it bluntly, human relations, and there are many human dramas that stem from them. I have been dealing with China for most of my 35-year career as a diplomat. And I would like to continue to engage in China-related matters, in the hope that Chinese society as well as Chinese people’s lives can become better today than yesterday, and tomorrow than today.

This is my fifth time living in China, and I can say that China, especially Beijing is my second home. During my stay in China, I have had the opportunity to experience the various beauties of China through my hobby of photography. For example, the canola fields of Luoping, Yunnan, the snowscapes of Huangshan, and the grasslands of Inner Mongolia were so beautiful that I still remember them vividly.

During this term, I would like to travel all over China to photograph the beautiful scenery of China and introduce it to my Japanese friends and the Japanese people. At the same time, from the beginning of this year, I have started to showcase the photos of the beautiful scenery I took in Japan and in China on the Embassy’s Weibo and other platforms. Stay tuned.

Contact reporter Chen Lixiong ( and editor Lu Zhenhua (

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