SEOUL – Chinese President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, standing only a row apart, chose not to speak to each other during a group photo session at a nuclear summit in Washington, highlighting the state of relations between Asia’s two biggest economies.
The absence of talks between the leaders at the two-day summit comes as Japan steps up its criticism of China’s territorial ambitions in the South China Sea and as ships and planes from both nations tail one another around contested islets in the East China Sea. Both nations support recent United Nations Security Council sanctions on North Korea for its weapons program.
“Just the fact they had an opportunity, both being in the same place at the same time, and chose not to meet shows a missed opportunity,” Ralph Cossa, president of the Pacific Forum CSIS in Honolulu, said. “I’m not sure if I’d read an awful lot into it, but it reflects a general cooling or at least less eagerness on both sides to keep the momentum going.”
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. High-level economic talks that were supposed to be held early this year in Japan have so far failed to materialize.
Last month China accused Japan of “double dealing” and “making trouble for China at every turn.” Japan has expressed concern about the growing firepower of the Chinese coast guard, with converted warships regularly entering Japanese waters around the uninhabited Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan has long administered the Senkakus, but both China and Taiwan began to lay claim to them in the late 1960s after rumors of rich gas and mineral deposits began to emerge. Japan effectively nationalized the isles in 2012, infuriating Beijing.
Since then, the two countries have yet to implement a communications mechanism to reduce chances of an unintended clash at sea.
Japan remains committed to improving its relations with China even though no formal meeting took place this week, Japanese Foreign Ministry spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura said.
“The overall relations between Japan and China are going in the direction of gradual improvement,” Kawamura said. He declined to specify a reason for the absence of a summit between China and Japan at the nuclear summit in Washington.
Abe has said he wants to continue to meet Xi on the sidelines of international gatherings. Xi and Abe are scheduled to both attend the Group of 20 nations meet in Hangzhou, China, in September.
“It’s unfortunate Xi and Abe were unable to hold a bilateral summit, but that shouldn’t affect their work on nuclear security,” said Duyeon Kim, a Seoul-based non-resident associate in the Nuclear Policy Program and Asia Program at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. “The absence of a bilateral summit reflects the current geopolitical landscape more rather than a serious deficit in or dent to nuclear security work.”