There is speculation that quiet diplomacy may lead to a summit between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping. Certainly there are good reasons to expect no meeting of minds on some crucial issues that divide the two nations, but these need not prevent their leaders sitting down together to talk.

Both countries have too much at stake to allow the territorial row over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to derail broader bilateral relations. But because Abe claims his door is open to dialogue — while slamming it shut on acknowledging there is a territorial dispute — skeptics downplay the possibility of a summit.

Surely, though, there are ways in which this can be overcome while allowing both sides to save face — and after all, that’s the kind of thing diplomats get paid for. Simply, both sides could agree to disagree on the “territorial problem,” shift it to the back burner, and move on to other critical, substantive problems.

A mature relationship in any sphere means acknowledging differences and not allowing them to dominate relations — in this case, at the expense of broader national interests. There are domestic risks involved for both leaders, but now that they have each consolidated their power at home they have an opportunity to demonstrate the advantages of pragmatic diplomacy.

Mutual vilification has intensified since Japan decided to nationalize the disputed islands last September. A recent poll shows that 90 percent of Japanese have a negative view of China, while 93 percent of Chinese return the sentiments. Leaders in both nations should see these poll results as a wake-up call. It’s time for a breakthrough — and top-level dialogue is crucial for resetting relations.

However, as Chung Young-June, a Korean PhD candidate at China Foreign Affairs University in Beijing, has pointed out in a recent email exchange, “Japanese foreign policy has internal constraints and incoherencies stemming from a failure to achieve domestic consensus on which kind of path the nation should actually go.”

In his view, “the prospect for diplomatically mitigating the (territorial) issue is unclear” — so unclear, that he says, “I am not sure if either China or Japan want to either (because) the status quo of imbroglio is quite beneficial for both countries.”

But Abenomics is in search of a growth strategy, so engaging a rising China and working out a modus vivendi makes sense. Beijing has sent signals it wants dialogue, and there is a significant downside to leaving relations in the deep freeze at this crucial juncture. The massive geopolitical shift in the region in China’s favor is a reality that can’t be ignored, and the risks are amplified by mutual antagonism.

Alessio Patalano, a lecturer in war studies at King’s College London, points out that, “These small islets have become markers of governments’ competence and legitimacy in protecting national sovereignty.” But he also notes, “The economic aspect is not one that is necessarily aggravating the situation.

“The 2008 agreement between China and Japan to jointly explore resources in one of the gas fields, and the fishery agreement between Tokyo and Taipei this past April 2013 show that the economic value of the area might offer the possibility to defuse tensions.”

Tensions have spiked because, he explains, “Chinese increased maritime activities (both paramilitary and naval) … seem to be feeding wider fears in Japan about a stronger maritime challenge, one that would increase the country’s vulnerability and ability to guarantee continued access to sea lanes and the maritime commons — vital to the Japanese economic survival.”

Patalano, author of “Maritime Strategy and National Security in Japan and Britain: From the First Alliance to Post 9/11” (2012), is relatively optimistic, arguing that, “Economic agendas will slowly lead the governments to de-emphasise the question of the sovereignty, or at least to put it on the side, to focus more on questions of management of the maritime space around the area, from fishing to general behavior at sea — specifically to prevent unintended clashes from leading to further escalation. Focusing on economic interactions and on mechanisms for crisis management at sea is a first important step that will slowly allow this issue to remain contained for the time being.”

Patalano advocates greater engagement and sees hope in ongoing cooperation: “Overall, I think what is important to stress is that the current regional power shift will require Japan and China to progressively readjust their bilateral relationship.

“In this context, the evolution of Sino-American relations will have an impact on the bilateral relationship, but what is even more important is that neither side forgets that Japanese and Chinese national defense and security policy are all about how to deal with each other.

“Japan and China are two increasingly crucial international players; in the Gulf of Aden their navies work with the rest of the international community to deal with the issue of piracy and potential disruptions to international shipping. This shows that in this relationship cooperation exists and that this is an aspect that too often remains unnoticed.”

Howard French, author of the forthcoming “China’s Second Continent: How a million migrants are building a new empire in Africa” (2013), and a former New York Times bureau chief in Tokyo and Shanghai who recently conducted a series of interviews here, believes there is, “a growing anxiety in Japan about its relationship with the United States.

“Japan seems to be thinking seriously for the first time, albeit quietly still, about how far Washington will go to back it in a clash with China. The basic question is whether the U.S. would sacrifice its relations with China on the altar of what seems from afar like a relatively minor territorial dispute. The flip side of this question, of course, is whether, if push comes to shove, the U.S. would sacrifice its alliance relationship with Japan in order to preserve relations with a country that one assumes will sooner or later possess the world’s largest economy.

“There is a lot of strategic uncertainty embedded in all of this, and this has forced Japan to think in unaccustomed ways about assuring much more of its own defense and even contemplate eventually going it alone, if need be.”

Improving relations with China, he argues, requires Japan, “taking bold steps to put the ‘history issue’ to rest, once and for all. This is far more essential to becoming a ‘normal nation’ than constitutional reform.”

He adds, “For a conservative leader like Abe, proper, definitive treatment of the history question, one that accommodates both self-respect and atonement, would be a breakthrough equivalent of (President Richard) Nixon in China (in 1972).”

But is Abe up to the task?

Jeff Kingston is Director of Asian Studies, Temple University Japan.

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