What a difference five months can make.
Despite a relationship overshadowed by Japan’s wartime past and a territorial dispute over islands in the East China Sea, the leaders of China and Japan held a 29-minute meeting on Wednesday on the sidelines of a conference in Jakarta — and even managed to look a bit more relaxed than their last chat in November.
Dressed in suits, with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe wearing a blue tie and President Xi Jinping a light purple tie, the heads of Asia’s two biggest economies smiled at each other and shook hands firmly, even if their eye contact was a little awkward.
It was hardly an auspicious time for a meeting.
Abe this week prompted complaints from China after he sent a traditional offering for the start of the spring festival at Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, a place that honors war dead including more than a dozen Class A war criminals.
Abe also said on Monday he did not plan to repeat Japan’s previous war apologies in a statement to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. China and South Korea have both called on Japan to do more to atone for its militarist past.
Still, the atmosphere of the meeting seemed more positive than Abe and Xi’s 25-minute conversation in November on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing. That probably reflects a more pragmatic understanding of the challenges for the major trading partners, according to Lian Degui, a deputy director of Japanese studies at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies.
“As the two countries both face an economic slowdown at home, they don’t want to intensify the situation but to have more cooperation,” Lian said.
“Neither of the two sides wants to see more disputes that could potentially draw them into wars, and they have to seek more consensus while putting some unsolved issues into cold storage.”
Speaking to Xi at the start of their talks, Abe said relations with China were improving.
“Various international meetings are planned and I want to use these opportunities to hold summits,” Abe told reporters in Jakarta after the meeting. “I want to make efforts to develop our bilateral ties.”
Xi told Abe that he hopes Japan can treat the concerns of its neighbors seriously and face history, CCTV reported. Japan and China should continue communications in various areas to enhance mutual understanding, Xi was cited as saying.
As regional leaders were seated earlier Wednesday during the opening of the Asian African Conference, Xi and Abe flanked their host, Indonesian president Joko Widodo. They also shook hands as they lined up for an official photo call where they again stood on either side of Widodo.
“Last time in Beijing it was the first time and there was a lot of tension,” Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters on Wednesday in Jakarta. “Compared with that, the President’s expression and those of the other people who attended, was much softer.”
At their APEC meeting the two men looked ill at ease as they shook hands for the cameras at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. They sized each other up with stern faces, barely making eye contact after a hiatus of more than two years in formal top-level meetings.
“They’re in a different position than they were last year,” Kerry Brown, director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Center, said on Bloomberg Television of the Indonesia meeting. “China’s now slipping under 7 percent, Japan still seems to really be trying to kick-start itself out of this long recession, so they’ve got to talk to each other.”
“The issues, though, don’t go away,” Brown said. “They’ve still got major issues with each other.”