Japanese media reported Thursday that Tokyo and Beijing are preparing for a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next week.
It would be the first such meeting in almost three years and a diplomatic breakthrough for Abe.
But experts said if it materializes, the meeting will likely be brief and informal, and result in little of substance.
Still, they said, each side has its reasons to want a photo opportunity to mark an uptick in bilateral ties, however insubstantial the event may be.
Shin Kawashima, an associate professor of international relations at the University of Tokyo, said the two sides are negotiating whether or not to hold a meeting, not its contents.
They have apparently failed to agree on any key bilateral issues, such as Abe’s actions relating to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine or the dispute over the Senkaku Islands, administered by Japan but claimed by China. Beijing calls the group Diaoyu.
“Given those circumstances, it’s difficult to expect a meaningful outcome from the meeting,” Kawashima said.
Yet for Abe, merely meeting Xi in a one-on-one setting would allow him to argue significant success in improving bilateral ties.
Relations have been strained ever since then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda put some of the disputed Senkakus in state ownership in late 2012, an action that prompted Beijing to send ships into the nearby waters. Beijing’s escalation raised fears of hostilities breaking out between the world’s second- and third-largest economies.
The last summit between a Japanese prime minister and a Chinese president took place in December 2011, when Noda met Hu Jintao in Beijing. Noda also met with Premier Wen Jiabao in the Chinese capital in May 2012.
The absence of any summit since then has symbolized a relationship on life support.
Abe, often criticized as a hawk, has repeatedly spoken in public of his eagerness for constructive talks with Chinese leaders, in particular with Xi.
Abe has traveled to 49 countries since taking office in December 2012 and has held more than 200 summits.
China and South Korea have been the only major countries whose leaders have refused to meet him one on one.
Meanwhile, Beijing has its own reasons to want to have the leaders meet, said Satoshi Amako, a China expert and professor at the Graduate School of Asia-Pacific Studies at Waseda University in Tokyo.
China is the host country and it is customary for APEC hosts to hold bilateral talks with the leaders of member countries on the sidelines of the main session.
If Beijing refuses to meet Abe even on the sidelines of APEC, it would highlight China’s inflexibility and could damage its image in the eyes of other nations, Amako said.
“China is trying to use APEC as a stage to show off its prominence (as a world leader). China’s reputation would deteriorate if it keeps trying to isolate such countries as Japan and the Philippines” at such events, he said.
Additionally, China needs Japanese technology and experience to help it build urban infrastructure and tackle environmental problems, he said.
At the same time, anti-Japan forces within China’s leadership and anti-Japan sentiment among the public have abated from the fever pitch of several years ago, making it easier for Xi to meet Abe on the sidelines of APEC, he said.