The brief talks between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, held on Monday evening after Xi wrapped up the Group of 20 summit that he chaired in Hangzhou, failed to produce concrete steps for reducing tensions over the repeated incursion of Chinese government vessels into waters around the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea or narrowing the gap between the two governments over China’s territorial claims in the South China Sea. The two leaders reportedly agreed to expedite talks for the implementation of a bilateral maritime and aerial communication mechanism to prevent unintended clashes in the East China Sea — on which they both had concurred nearly two years ago but have since not moved forward.
That it was only the third one-on-one meeting between Abe and Xi since both took office in 2012 illustrates the abnormality of ties between the East Asian neighbors. The two leaders need to keep their word and work to establish the maritime and aerial communication mechanism — essentially a hotline between defense officials — as a first step toward restoring bilateral ties to a more constructive level, even though it may be too much to expect rapid improvement in the relationship.
Abe is said to have prioritized holding talks with Xi during his stay in China after Japan’s repeated protests through diplomatic channels appeared to have had little impact on halting the activities of large numbers of Chinese vessels in the sea around the Senkakus — including in Japan’s territorial waters — for many days in August. It was reportedly only after Abe arrived in Hangzhou on Sunday that Beijing officially informed Tokyo that his meeting with Xi was set for Monday. Xi met with leaders of more than 20 nations, including countries that took part in the summit as observers, before meeting Abe for the first time since April 2015.
During the talks that lasted for about 30 minutes, Abe called for Chinese restraint in the dispute over the Senkakus, which China also claims and calls the Diaoyu Islands, by describing the activities of the Chinese vessels in waters around the islands as “extremely regrettable.” Xi responded that China and Japan should appropriately deal with the situation “through dialogue in order to protect peace and stability in the region” but did not offer an indication of what action he would take to prevent tensions from escalating. As Abe emphasized the importance of the “rule of law” over China’s territorial row with other nations in the South China Sea and urged Beijing to honor international law, Xi reportedly told Abe that Japan should “exercise caution in its words and deeds” on the issue — a reflection of Beijing’s frustration with Japanese criticism of its position in the South China Sea dispute, including its rejection of the international arbitration court ruling that dismissed most of its claims in the area.
The two leaders reportedly agreed that improved bilateral ties are essential for regional peace and prosperity, with Xi saying that both countries should try to bring their relations back “on the track of normal development as soon as possible.” But aside from the rhetorical gestures, they did not seem to have agreed on concrete steps that should be taken to eliminate the “complex factors that hinder” and leave bilateral relations “fragile,” as Xi put it.
There are views that as he seeks to solidify his grip on power ahead of the Communist Party leadership reshuffle at the party convention next year, Xi has little room for rapprochement with Japan. Raising the alarm over disputes with Japan, in particular the Abe administration’s national security policies and its position on wartime history-related issues with China, can help divert domestic criticism of his leadership. Xi cannot afford to give his political opponents ammunition to challenge him by appearing to make concessions to Japan for the sake of improving ties.
If a significant turnaround in the bilateral relationship is not to be expected, the most Japan can do vis-a-vis China for now may be to maintain top-level dialogue to keep differences at manageable levels. Tensions can build up in the absence of constant communication between the two governments. Last month, the foreign ministers of Japan, China and South Korea agreed to work toward holding a trilateral meeting of their top leaders in Japan by the end of the year. On Monday Abe proposed to Xi that they meet again on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in Peru in November, although Xi did not respond.
As the first step, Tokyo and Beijing should carry out what the two leaders agreed — to speed up the talks for implementation of the maritime and aerial communication mechanism between their defense officials to avert accidental clashes. That would be the minimal mechanism for managing a potential crisis between the two countries — which both Tokyo and Beijing should have no problem establishing. And successfully building such a mechanism should in turn set the stage for further efforts toward putting bilateral relations back on a normal path.
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