ULAANBAATAR – Despite vociferous rhetoric and confrontations over the South China Sea at the Asia-Europe Meeting, Japan’s prime minister and China’s premier took care to ensure their meeting could be viewed as a small step forward in bilateral relations.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese Premier Li Keqiang both outwardly took strong enough stances on sovereignty issues to satisfy their domestic audiences, but they also left the door open for further cooperation in areas where needed.
Abe, meeting Li for the first time in eight months Friday on the sidelines of the summit in Ulaanbaatar, was tasked with pushing Japan’s position that maritime territorial disputes should be dealt with in accordance with international law following the Permanent Court of Arbitration in The Hague’s ruling Tuesday dismissing China’s sweeping claims to most of the South China Sea.
Japan was circumspect in its formal account of the meeting, with a senior official saying only that Abe had conveyed Tokyo’s position to Li on the issue.
The leaders managed to agree on other bilateral issues brought up in the talks, and the official quoted Abe as telling Li, “While difficult issues remain, I want us to tackle the challenges we share.”
Still, some media reports painted a somewhat more acrimonious meeting, with China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, reporting that Li told Abe to keep his nose out of the South China Sea issue.
According to a Japanese source, Abe’s plan called for maintaining “a restrained response so as to not unnecessarily inflame the Chinese public.”
As September’s Group of 20 summit of major economies in the Hangzhou, China, draws closer, both governments will be trying to lay the groundwork for a potential meeting between Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping.
Abe and Xi have held talks twice since each took office more than three years ago, both times on the sidelines of regional meetings.
By maintaining a congenial atmosphere for the most part, at least on the surface, Abe and Li may have sought to keep bilateral ties on a positive track.
Ties had been improving since they chilled several years ago over historical grievances between the two sides. But they grew tense once again in the days immediately after the Hague ruling.
While Beijing accused Tokyo through its state-controlled media of pulling the strings of the tribunal with the appointing of its members by a Japanese judge, Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida in a news conference the day before the leaders’ meeting said China’s response “is a challenge to the rule of law in the international community.”
In such an environment, Abe would make no progress by going after China over a single issue, a source close to his office said, hinting he wanted to get the ball rolling on high-level economic talks.
Trade and investment links keep both economies interdependent, and both have suffered from market volatility and dampened sentiment since the start of the year.
China is trying to manage a slowdown in growth while Japan is trying to lift itself out of decades of deflation. Both are also in Washington’s cross hairs for encouraging the weakening of their currencies.
Vice Foreign Minister Shinsuke Sugiyama was set to make a three day-visit to Beijing through Wednesday to meet Chinese officials including Executive Vice Foreign Minister Zhang Yesui.
With the ASEM summit having provided the leaders a venue to speak their piece about the South China Sea ruling, the officials may now ask each other how to move the boat forward.