There is an old Chinese proverb to the effect that the monarch needs to be careful about his facial expressions because his subordinates will be watching his every smile or frown for signs of his mood. Whether or not Chinese President Xi Jinping keeps that in mind, whatever expressions he shows on his face at his meetings with Japan’s prime minister serve the important function of telling the Chinese people where Sino-Japanese relations stand at the moment.

At the photo session at the outset of his sixth meeting with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at Da Nang, Vietnam, on Nov. 11, Xi flashed a smile. This represented a major change from their first encounter three years ago in Beijing on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, at which Xi did not even look Abe in the eye, remained grouchy throughout their meeting, and did not permit the hoisting of the two countries’ national flags. The 45-minute meeting in Da Nang was held in a friendly atmosphere, as they congratulated each other for being re-elected and confirmed efforts to improve bilateral ties.

This change of attitude on the part of Xi may have puzzled some, since Tokyo and Beijing have two major pending issues with no clear sign of rapprochement from either side. One is China’s territorial claim over Japan’s Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, where Chinese government ships have repeatedly encroached on Japanese territorial waters around the islands. Air Self-Defense Force jets continue to frequently be scrambled against approaching Chinese military aircraft in the area. The other is their divide over wartime history, as represented by Beijing’s protest against visits by Japanese political leaders to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, where Class-A war criminals are enshrined.

Given that Tokyo and Beijing have not agreed to set aside these differences, why did the two leaders show such sign of mutual rapprochement?

Signs of change in Abe’s attitude toward China began to emerge around May, when he dispatched Takaya Imai, his close aide and right-hand man, to Beijing to attend an international conference on Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative for infrastructure investments over a vast stretch of areas linking China and Europe. Imai met with Yang Jiechi, a member of the Chinese State Council, and Abe has since been urging Xi to visit Japan next year — reciprocating his own trip to China — to mark the 40th anniversary of the 1978 Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship. Undoubtedly, Xi’s visit is high on Abe’s short-term political agenda.

A look at recent bilateral history shows that Chinese leaders have visited Japan in the years ending with eight — Jiang Zemin in 1998 and Hu Jintao in 2008. A Chinese diplomatic source says both Jiang and Hu chose to visit Japan shortly after being re-elected to their second term because that was the timing with the least risk of such a trip creating unfavorable repercussions at home.

For Abe, who has repeatedly managed to shore up his popular approval ratings by calling public attention to diplomatic achievements, mutual visits by him and Xi would be a most welcome scenario — after his attempt to achieve a breakthrough in relations with Russia by resolving the territorial dispute over the islands off Hokkaido ended miserably last year. While Abe called North Korea’s nuclear and missile programs a “national crisis” and even cited them as a reason for calling the snap election in October, what he has done so far is repeatedly advocate stepping up pressure on the North, with no diplomatic means of stopping Pyongyang other than talking to the United States and China.

At home, Abe may find it difficult to move forward with his political agenda of revising the Constitution, given the upcoming abdication of Emperor Akihito in April 2019. In short, the Abe administration does not seem to have much to do in 2018 — a scenario that would not be favorable to his bid for re-election as Liberal Democratic Party chief in September. It was against this background that he jumped on the agenda of improving relations with China.

A while ago, Abe seemed to be treating China as Japan’s “hypothetical enemy” for its ongoing military buildup. Now that the 2015 security legislation has come into force, he no longer needs to play up the threats from China, and this has led him to seek closer ties with Xi. If he succeeds in inviting Xi next year and issuing a joint statement, which would be the fifth political document between the two countries following the one released in 2008, that could burnish his administration’s legacy regardless of what it might state.

Then how would Xi respond to Abe’s invitation to visit Japan next year? The consensus in Beijing is that Xi is still cautious toward his ties with Abe. One diplomatic source says it would be a mistake to interpret Xi’s smile at the Da Nang meeting as a sign of a rapprochement with Abe. That smile, the source says, is no more than a message to his subordinates that they can go ahead with promoting exchanges with Japan to some extent.

There has indeed been big differences in the ways in which the Abe-Xi talks were reported in Japan and China. Abe told reporters that Xi responded positively to his call to visit Japan, quoting Xi as saying he attached much importance to high-level mutual visits. But China’s state news agency Xinhua mentioned no such exchange between Xi and Abe and simply referred to their remarks as focusing on the importance of economic and cultural exchanges.

When it was reported that Xi noted to Abe that the Japanese prime minister, when he first took the reins of government in 2006, chose China as the destination of his first overseas visit, a senior official of Japan’s Foreign Ministry called the remark proof that Xi has recognized Abe as a partner. But a Chinese diplomatic source says otherwise, stating that what Xi meant to say was that after Abe returned to power in 2012, he visited China only after traveling to 49 other countries, and that Xi was in fact posing the question of whether Abe was indeed a trustworthy partner.

What then was the meaning of Xi’s smile at Da Nang? A Chinese Communist Party insider says the smile indicated the overwhelming upper hand that China currently has in its relations with Japan.

Indeed, as viewed from China, Japan is becoming less and less important. While China remains Japan’s top trading partner, the relative importance of Japan for China is on a decline as Beijing pursues its One Belt, One Road initiative, which will strengthen its relations with the European Union and Southeast Asian countries. Xi is now in a position to take his time to weigh the merits and demerits of visiting Japan. Even if he does decide to come to Tokyo, that could be delayed until after confirming the results of the LDP presidential race. As China becomes larger and Japan’s relative presence smaller, the lapse of time will work undeniably to Beijing’s advantage. Xi may even be thinking that China will be able to gain concessions from Abe and his government without making any moves on his part.

The Philippines and Vietnam, which used to lock horns with China over their territorial row in the South China Sea, no longer even voice their concerns about Beijing. And there are already signs that a similar situation could emerge in the East China Sea. Should Abe fail to tackle and resolve the issues in bilateral relations with China, and should he merely concentrate on short-term gains for his administration, he would face the same miserable results as his “global bird’s eye diplomacy.”

This is an abridged translation of an article from the December issue of Sentaku, a monthly magazine covering political, social and economic scenes. Read more English articles at www.sentaku-en.com.

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