ST. PETERSBURG, RUSSIA – Despite Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s first face-to-face encounters with his Chinese and South Korean counterparts amid fraught bilateral ties, full rapprochement with the two neighboring countries is still a long way off.
In Russia for a Group of 20 summit, Abe chatted briefly with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on Thursday for the first time since he took office in December. The five-minute meetings took place on the sidelines of the G-20 gathering that ended Friday in St. Petersburg.
Beijing is still refusing to hold a formal bilateral summit, enraged by the dismissal of Chinese claims to the Senkaku Islands. China says the islets, which it calls Diaoyu, are an inherent part of its territory. Beijing has repeatedly said it will not hold formal high-level talks unless Japan first budges from its official position that no dispute exists over the ownership of the Senkakus in the East China Sea.
A government source in Tokyo said Abe and Xi’s chat resulted from a gambit by the prime minister, casually approaching Xi in a crowd without an official appointment or even a Chinese interpreter.
According to the source, Abe was exchanging pleasantries and making small talk with other G-20 leaders in an anteroom before the start of the summit’s full session. Abe went up to Xi, smiling and offering his hand, which Xi accepted. The two then spoke briefly through an English interpreter.
Abe also talked with Park before a working dinner the same day.
Tokyo has been unable to hold formal summits with Beijing and Seoul since May last year due to territorial disputes and Japan’s markedly different interpretation of historical events before and during World War II.
Putting on a brave face, Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters the handshake between Abe and Xi “means a lot” for the future of relations with China.
Earlier this year, the Chinese Foreign Ministry and members of the ruling Communist Party asked the Japanese government to formally acknowledge the two countries’ differing views about the sovereignty of the Senkakus and to begin negotiating a settlement, according to sources close to Japan-China relations.
Tokyo, which maintains there is no dispute over the Senkakus, turned down the request and proposed holding a formal summit instead.
Japan and South Korea held foreign ministerial talks in July, but Seoul has maintained a tough stance on the possibility of holding an official bilateral summit. The two neighbors are at loggerheads over a pair of South Korean-held islets that Japan claims as part of Shimane Prefecture. The Sea of Japan islets are referred to as Dokdo by Seoul and Takeshima by Tokyo.
South Korea’s presidential office and top officials of its Foreign Ministry appear reluctant to hold a summit with Japan, believing the South Korean public would not allow the government to soften its stance, a diplomatic source said.
Abe, Xi and Park are expected to attend events in early October related to a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Indonesia and a meeting of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in Brunei.
An official in the prime minister’s office said Abe hopes his brief meetings with Xi and Park will serve as a step toward holding formal summits on the sidelines of the two gatherings next month.
But a South Korean source said it would be difficult for Seoul, as well as Beijing, to consider arranging such a summit at that time, given the possibility that Abe might visit war-related Yasukuni Shrine in late October for its fall festival. The controversial shrine honors the nation’s war dead, including 14 convicted or accused Class-A war criminals.
A senior Foreign Ministry official said all sides should make efforts to improve bilateral relations, adding, “I want China to stop its ships from entering our territorial waters near the Senkakus.”
Only a day after Abe and Xi shook hands, four Chinese ships steamed into Japanese territorial waters around the islets.