Japan-China tensions simmer as Xi, Abe remain cool on talks in U.S.

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Chinese and Japanese leaders have a chance this week to sit down in Washington and discuss ways to stop simmering tensions from once again damaging business ties between Asia’s two largest economies. They may pass on the opportunity.

Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe haven’t held face-to-face talks for almost a year as a bid to rebuild ties from a 2012 low shows signs of stalling. As the two prepare to join dozens of other leaders at a two-day nuclear security summit starting March 31, officials from both countries have downplayed prospects for a meeting. Still, the two sides have a history of deciding such encounters only hours before they take place.

A fragile rapprochement after Xi and Abe’s first meeting more than two years ago has frayed over territorial disputes and lingering mistrust over Japan’s militant past. Japan’s stepped up criticism of China’s assertiveness in the South China Sea has angered Beijing, while ships and planes from both nations continue to tail one another around contested islets closer to Japan. Neither leader can afford an escalation as Xi pushes reforms to keep China on a stable growth path, while Abe seeks to reignite a sputtering economy.

“We certainly can’t say that Sino-Japanese ties have been fixed at this point,” said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. “They need to communicate better about problems in the East and South China Seas to avoid instability. Of course, America wants this to happen.”

Abe told the Diet on Tuesday that his “door is always open” to talks with China, though Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said nothing had been decided about a bilateral meeting at the summit hosted by U.S. President Barack Obama. A Chinese Foreign Ministry official, who asked not to be named, said it was doubtful that Xi would meet Abe.

China has reclaimed more than 3,000 acres (1,200 hectares) of land in the South China Sea over the past two years as it builds a platform to assert its claims to more than 80 percent of the waterway. Tokyo has vocally backed Washington’s effort to challenge Beijing by sailing warships near disputed islands in the waters that see $5 trillion of shipping pass through each year. Japan has also loosened restrictions on its own military and tightened security relations with Southeast Asian countries whose territorial claims conflict with China’s.

Nonetheless, Abe has said he wants to continue to meet Xi on the sidelines of international gatherings after two such encounters in November 2014 and April 2015. China this month accused Japan of “double dealing” and “making trouble for China at every turn.”

“Neither country has made any concession on the South China Sea and they have no common understanding on it,” said Li Hanmei, a professor who researches Japanese issues at Peking University. “It would be hard for the two to meet officially without any concrete concessions.”

While the Japanese and Chinese leaders may not directly engage with each other in Washington, they have been receptive to U.S. diplomatic initiatives. Obama will hold a one-on-one with Xi, as well as a trilateral meeting with Abe and South Korean President Park Geun-hye on the sidelines of the summit. Xi and Abe aren’t scheduled to coincide again until leaders of the Group of 20 nations meet in Hangzhou, China in September.

Japan and China had $344 billion in trade in 2014 and are seeking to expand that through a three-way free-trade agreement with South Korea. But a high-level economic dialogue involving multiple Cabinet-level officials that was supposed to be held early this year in Japan has so far failed to materialize.

Tokyo has also expressed concern about the growing firepower of the Chinese coast guard, with converted warships regularly entering what Japan regards as its territorial waters around the disputed islands in the East China Sea. The two countries have yet to implement a communications mechanism that aimed to reduce the chances of an unintended clash at sea.

Obama could seek to broker a trilateral meeting with the two leaders, which would help add substance to his efforts to increase U.S. influence in Asia, from a pan-Pacific free trade deal to the deployment of a ballistic missile defense system to protect against North Korea.

“Obama can encourage the two to play nice together,” said Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu. But the two Asian leaders may find their personal agendas are best served by keeping one another at arms’ length for the time being as “both see the value in a modest and manageable level of tensions to build nationalist support for their respective programs,” he said.

While photo opportunities with Xi and Obama in Washington could prove good public relations as Abe seeks to underscore his achievements ahead of an Upper House election expected in July, pushing too hard for a meeting could be counterproductive, according to Michael Cucek, adjunct professor at Temple University’s Japan campus.

“A cold and inconclusive meeting with Xi would make Abe look desperate,” Cucek said, adding that “the Chinese may be too wary” to agree on a joint statement.