The meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, which finally took place Monday in Beijing, is just a first step in restoring bilateral relations that have reached their lowest ebb since the two nations normalized diplomatic ties in 1972.
The summit itself does not resolve many of the differences that stalled dialogue between the leaders of the two Asian neighbors for 2½ years. Now Abe and Xi need to manage them in ways that move Japan-China ties forward.
The meeting held on the sidelines of the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which Xi hosted, was Abe’s first with the Chinese leader since Abe returned to the government’s helm in December 2012.
The abnormally long absence of top-level talks between the two countries had been triggered by a move earlier that year by the Democratic Party of Japan-led administration of Yoshihiko Noda to purchase and nationalize the Senkaku Islands — which China also claims as its own territory.
While refusing summit talks with Japan, Beijing has responded by routinely sending coast guard vessels into or near Japan’s territorial waters around the islets in the East China Sea. The chill in bilateral ties was exacerbated by Abe’s December 2013 visit — the first by a Japanese prime minister since 2006 — to Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Class-A war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.
While the war of words intensified between the two governments over Japan’s past wartime aggression on one hand and China’s military buildup and growing maritime assertiveness on the other, tensions rose over China’s move to unilaterally establish an air defense identification zone that overlaps Japan’s ADIZ and to send Chinese fighter jets flying close to Japan’s Self-Defense Force aircraft, raising the specter of an accidental military clash.
Still, the two governments have been in talks to resume top-level dialogue, although efforts dragged on until the last minute before the APEC summit as Beijing demanded that Japan first make concessions on the Senkakus and Yasukuni Shrine issues, while Tokyo called for holding the Abe-Xi summit without any such conditions.
An agreement reached last Friday between senior Japanese and Chinese officials, which eventually set the stage for the talks on Monday, was apparently carefully worded to allow both sides to save face by interpreting the text how they wished. A statement released by the Japanese government said Japan and China have “differing views over the recent tension” over the Senkaku Islands — a reference that the Chinese Communist Party-run media called an admission by Japan that a territorial dispute exist with China over the islets.
Tokyo has denied that any such dispute exists because the Senkakus are an inherent part of the Japanese territory both historically and under international law. Abe, meanwhile, denied over the weekend that the text’s mention of “overcoming political difficulties that affect bilateral relations” is a reference to his not visiting Yasukuni in the future.
The summit was significant in that the two leaders finally broke the ice by meeting face to face. Abe and Xi reportedly agreed on the need to develop a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit” to improve chilly bilateral ties, and to start work on building an emergency communication mechanism to avoid unintentional accidents in the waters around the Senkakus that could precipitate a conflict.
Abe told Xi that he inherits his predecessors’ historical recognition of Japan’s wartime past, while the Chinese president urged Japan to “face the history straight on and look toward the future.”
Monday’s meeting — which lasted less than 30 minutes — alone does not resolve any of the differences that have strained ties between Japan and China in recent years.
What’s important is that the two leaders strive to match their words with deeds to manage their divergent views in ways that will prevent relations between the close regional neighbors — which are the world’s second- and third-largest economies and major trading partners — from worsening and possibly harming regional security.
Resumption of top-level dialogue is a welcome development toward having such efforts make progress.