National / Politics | ANALYSIS

Abe, Xi meet at arm's length; patience needed before progress

Kyodo, Bloomberg

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping, the first in nearly 18 months, seemed like deja vu all over again.

The meeting Monday in the Chinese city of Hangzhou, held after a two-day summit of the Group of 20 major economies, took place under circumstances similar to those in 2014, including renewed tensions over the Senkaku Islands that Japan controls but China claims.

The outcome of their half-hour conversation turned out to be largely a replay of what they confirmed when they finally held their first face-to-face talks in November of that year in Beijing, just ahead of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit.

As before, Abe and Xi agreed to aim for an early implementation of a maritime and aerial communication mechanism between defense officials of the two countries to prevent accidental clashes in the East China Sea where the tiny, uninhabited islets are located.

Until their talks nearly two years ago, bilateral ties were at their lowest levels in decades because of issues related to the Senkakus and the wartime past.

Xi, who also chaired the APEC summit, had little choice but to be a good host and extend Abe the same courtesy as that shown to other leaders.

The situation was analogous this time.

“As China was the host of the G-20 summit, diplomatically and strategically, it had to project an image of having stable relations with major countries, including the United States and Japan,” said Gui Yongtao, an associate professor of international relations at Peking University.

The meeting also potentially reflects a recognition that for some time they will be stuck with each other.

Communist Party precedent means Xi is set to remain in power until 2022, though speculation is simmering he may seek to stay longer.

Abe, meanwhile, looks increasingly likely to seek an extension to his term as ruling party leader beyond the current limit of September 2018.

“China sees Abe as hard to get on with,” observed Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. “They would prefer someone more dovish. But he is making few mistakes, he has strong domestic support and he looks set for a long period in power. So rather than wait for a replacement, they have to build ties on that basis.”

President of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party since September 2012, Abe is entitled to two three-year terms. But in his August Cabinet reshuffle and party posts, he installed as his LDP second-in-command Toshihiro Nikai, a vocal proponent of changing the rules so Abe can stay on and oversee the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, provided the LDP stays in power.

Japan’s ties with China are not as bad as several years ago and both sides have acknowledged the necessity of speeding up the ongoing process of reconciliation.

Nevertheless, progress has been very slow and mutual distrust persists.

While senior Japanese officials sought to set up an Abe-Xi meeting before the G-20 summit started Sunday, their Chinese counterparts insisted that it be held after the multilateral gathering, according to diplomatic sources.

The proposal from China reflected its wariness over Abe’s remarks at the summit, particularly as to whether he would touch on the tensions in the East and South China seas, a Japanese official said.

China apparently wanted to do its best to minimize any chance of thorny security and diplomatic issues overshadowing the G-20 summit, chaired by Xi, who is believed to have regarded its success as paramount for him to further consolidate his influence, domestically and internationally.

Chinese scholars said the latest meeting between the two top leaders is likely to have positive implications in the coming months, but predict that it will not lead to any breakthrough in the long stalemate.

“There will be no big change or advancement. Basically, the relationship will be an extension of the current line,” said Yang Bojiang, vice director of the Institute of Japanese Studies at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “It will improve step by step. It is unlikely to suddenly improve or suddenly deteriorate.”

Since taking office in late 2012, Abe held talks only three times with Xi, all on the sidelines of multilateral gatherings and the last one in April 2015, although the world’s second- and third-largest economies face a host of challenges and opportunities for moving into a new stage of development.

Japan and China have not succeeded in setting the stage for an official visit of either side just for a bilateral meeting.

The two scholars in separate interviews characterized Sino-Japanese relations as having already entered into a phase of a “new normal.”

They see that the relationship can be defined by competition and cooperation, and a healthy combination of them is essential for a better future.

“We tend to solely focus on the aspect of rivalry. But there are many potentials for cooperation,” Yang said, citing areas such as environmental protection, energy conservation and aging populations as good areas to explore more partnerships, at least to begin with.

“Cooperation entails time. Still, what it can produce is not just observable benefits,” he said, pointing out that what may be more significant is the process of interaction between people of the two countries that will help increase mutual confidence.

Seen from the perspective of China, the scholars said collaboration in infrastructure building in other Asian countries could inject strong impetus to bilateral relations.

Under the “One Belt and One Road” initiative, which is closely linked to the establishment late last year of the China-initiated Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, Xi is enthusiastic about aiding development projects and promoting integration in neighboring countries.

By the end of this year, it is widely expected that Premier Li Keqiang will visit Japan for the first time since assuming office in 2013 to attend an annual trilateral leaders’ meeting also involving South Korea.

Next year marks the 45th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic ties as well and there is a favorable opportunity to accelerate efforts toward closer ties.

Nonetheless, China will move again into a politically sensitive period in 2017 as the Communist Party will hold a congress that takes place only every five years.

As always, the behind-the-scenes power wrangling will likely intensify among party members to get senior posts ahead of the congress, expected to be held in the autumn of that year, and it is hard to imagine any drastic softening of China’s stance toward Japan in that course.

Gui, well-versed in Japanese politics, said government officials of the two countries remain cautious and seem to think that trying out new ideas still carries a high risk.

“A period of patience is expected to continue a little longer,” he said.