As the leaders of both China and Japan prepare to attend a regional economic meeting, the event offers them an opportunity to meet and begin to repair deeply frayed relations.
Whether they actually will is another matter.
Both sides have a range of opinions, but senior officials generally share the view that it would look odd if Chinese President Xi Jinping made no contact with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum summit next Monday and Tuesday.
Xi will chair this year’s summit of Pacific Rim nations, including Australia, Chile, the Philippines, Russia, South Korea, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam.
He may well dislike Abe personally, and the two men have presided over a plunge in relations over territorial disputes and differing readings of history. But Xi cannot avoid Abe when the gathering begins on the outskirts of the Chinese capital.
He has almost no choice but to pose for a group photo with Abe. He might also have to greet him with a handshake. Given these circumstances, most experts bet the two will at least have a short conversation, if not hold their first formal meeting.
“China is thinking about how to be a good host, how to be polite and how to maintain a workable relationship with an important country like Japan,” said Wang Yong, a professor of international studies at Peking University.
The Chinese government is aware, after all, that Abe has shown nations worldwide since taking office in December 2012 his desire for official dialogue with Xi.
It can be surmised that China does not want to appear surly, such as by failing to provide Abe the same courtesy as other APEC leaders.
Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi, knowing well that diplomacy demands a friendly image, said Wednesday that his country, as the host of the summit and in line with Chinese custom, will treat “all visitors as guests.” He was speaking in response to a question about the possibility of an Abe-Xi meeting.
His comment at an APEC-related conference is seen as another indication that China accepts there may be some form of contact between Xi and Abe. But whether there will be formal talks is a different question.
On Monday, China’s official Xinhua News Agency poured cold water on the idea that a meeting would take place, saying in an English-language commentary that Abe has “spared no efforts in seeking to meet with Xi.”
“His wish will be fulfilled, since Beijing, the host of this forum, will undoubtedly receive the Japanese leader with etiquette and hospitality, despite chronic territorial rows and a historic feud with Tokyo,” it said. “However, that does not necessarily mean Abe’s long-sought formal talks with Xi during APEC would come true, which demands Abe extend good faith and take real action to create the proper atmosphere.”
In the months leading up to the summit of the 21-member bloc, China received a flurry of visits by Japanese government officials, lawmakers and business leaders.
Many of them called for an official meeting to restore a mutually beneficial relationship, a message conveyed most recently by Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso when he met with Chinese Vice Premier Zhang Gaoli, one of the seven members of the Communist Party’s powerful Politburo Standing Committee.
Diplomats have also engaged in negotiations behind the scenes, but China’s position remains unchanged, demanding that Abe’s government meet two conditions for official talks, Japanese officials say.
China’s position is that Tokyo must acknowledge a dispute over the sovereignty of the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands, and Abe must promise not to visit Yasukuni Shrine, where convicted war criminals are enshrined alongside the country’s war dead.
Experts say Xi is still in the process of consolidating his leadership and needs to be careful about popular sentiment over territorial and other delicate issues, making it unlikely China will drop its conditions or separate politics from economics in its relations with Japan.
Still, if the leaders of Japan and China do not meet at APEC, it will become far more difficult to arrange contact in the months ahead because next year marks the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II.