National / Politics

Will they, won't they? Abe-Xi summit hangs in the balance


Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed eagerness to meet with Chinese President Xi Jinping and pitch the creation of a hotline to prevent accidental maritime clashes over the Senkaku Islands, in an interview with The Washington Post.

“If a summit meeting is realized (with Xi), the message I would like to impart is to call for the initiation of the maritime communication mechanism, which would be a communication channel to prevent an accidental clash” in the East China Sea over the disputed Senkakus, Abe was quoted as saying in the interview published online Friday.

The overture comes as the two leaders gear up to meet on the fringes of a two-day summit of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that begins Monday in Beijing.

“Since Japan and China together have a responsibility for the peace and prosperity of the region, we hope that we can go back to basics and develop a cooperative relationship … based on common strategic interests,” Abe told the Post.

While it remains unknown whether an Abe-Xi meeting will be realized and, if so, whether it will be characterized as official, it is viewed as a crucial step toward mending ties poisoned by the dispute over the Japan-controlled but China-claimed Senkakus and, in some instances, polar opposite interpretations of wartime history. The two leaders have not held a formal meeting since Abe assumed power in December 2012 and Xi in March 2013.

The United States has welcomed the fence-mending efforts by the two Asian powers, according to Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida, who held brief talks with Secretary of State John Kerry on Friday in Beijing on the sidelines of the APEC gathering.

On Saturday, Kishida held formal discussions with his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, to make last-minute arrangements for a meeting between Abe and Xi, according to a Japanese government official.

Tokyo and Beijing have not held official foreign ministerial-level talks since September 2012, when Japan purchased the Senkakus from a private owner and effectively nationalized the chain. “I would like to ensure the trend toward improving Japan-China relations and to seize an opportunity to change gears,” Kishida told reporters Friday in reference to his meeting with Wang.

In the interview with the Post, Abe hailed as “very significant” U.S. President Barack Obama’s reaffirmation while in Tokyo in April that the Senkakus fall under the Japan-U.S. security treaty.

“The Senkaku Islands are an integral part of Japanese territory based on international law as well as in the context of our history. We presently have control over those islands, and we will continue to do so in the future,” Abe said.

On the economic front, Abe said negotiations between Tokyo and Washington over the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade initiative are “arriving at a final stage. … I think the important thing is for both Japan and the United States to show flexibility.”

Asked about the planned consumption tax hike in October next year, Abe replied: “We have to see good growth attained by the economy, otherwise we cannot expect tax revenues to go up. … We have to carefully analyze what is the state of the economy at this time.”

Abe has said he will decide on raising the tax to 10 percent from the current 8 percent after taking into account economic data, most notably revised gross domestic product figures due out Dec. 8, and by listening to the views of experts. The levy was hiked by 3 percentage points in April, choking personal spending and harming economic recovery.