The historic meeting between the leaders of China and Japan, hours before the APEC summit in Beijing, hopefully will lead to an easing of tensions between the two countries and end a period when the relationship was in free fall.
While a four-point agreement announced on Friday was commendable, neither side has actually changed its position in public.
Thus, President Xi Jinping, commenting on “severe difficulties” in the relationship, said “the rights and wrongs behind them are crystal clear”, implying the responsibility was on the Japanese side.
This is not a time for trading accusations, although China, as the victim of Japanese aggression in the 1930s and 1940s, can occupy the moral high ground.
Great nations like Japan cannot be expected to grovel in public, but neither can they evade responsibility for their actions, as many perceive Premier Shinzo Abe to have done with his denials of invasion and of responsibility on the “comfort women” and war crimes issues.
Hopefully, the two sides will now put aside their disputes and not do anything overtly to revive them.
This will be difficult, now that China conducts regular patrols in the waters off a disputed island chain that it calls the Diaoyu. Japan administers the islands, which it calls the Senkaku, and ships from the two sides will inevitably come into contact.
Significantly, the establishment of crisis management mechanisms “to avoid contingencies” is something on which both sides agreed Friday.
The four-point accord reaffirmed “the principles and spirit of the four basic documents” between the two countries.
Aside from the normalization agreement of 1972 and the peace treaty of 1978, the other documents are the joint statements issued during the visits to Japan of then-president Jiang Zemin in 1998 and of his successor, Hu Jintao, in 2008.
The islands don’t figure in any bilateral agreement, although the late Chinese paramount leader Deng Xiaoping stated at a 1978 news conference in Tokyo that both sides had agreed to shelve the dispute.
Reaffirmation of the four documents is welcome. In the most recent document, that of 2008, the two countries said they “recognized that the Japan-China relationship is one of the most important bilateral relationships for each of the two countries”.
Moreover, while China had called on Japan in 1998 to “learn lessons from history and adhere to the path of peace and development”, in 2008 the Chinese side “expressed its positive evaluation of Japan’s consistent pursuit of the path of a peaceful country and Japan’s contribution to the peace and stability of the world through peaceful means over more than 60 years since World War II”.
The history issue was not so prominent at that time. But Abe, through his words and actions in the last two years – including recent praise for Japanese war criminals as people who had “staked their souls to become the foundation of their nation” – has raised doubts about his and the Japanese government’s interpretation of history.
In the latest agreement, the two countries said they would squarely face history and advance toward the future.
It said both sides “shared some recognition” that they would “overcome political difficulties that affect their bilateral relations.”
Use of the word “some” suggests that the two sides are far from full agreement on what is needed to improve relations.
The American political scientist Francis Fukuyama, in an interview with Asahi Shimbun published on Saturday, had some words of advice for Japan on a revisionist view of history.
“I think it’s pretty clear that if Japan wants to have friends, this is not a good policy, because nobody is on Japan’s side on this kind of an issue,” he said. “The further Japan insists on this kind of revisionist history, the fewer friends it’s going to have.”
This is good advice.
Abe was able to thaw relations with China during his first term as premier in 2006-2007 and did not visit Yasukuni while in office, a practice followed by all his successors, until he broke his own tradition in 2013.
Since Abe returned to office nearly two years ago, he has sought to win friends by visiting 49 countries but, notably, until last weekend, did not visit China.
Not coincidentally, he has also not visited South Korea, where he is also not welcome.
Japan cannot afford to remain isolated in its own neighborhood. It is high time that it mended fences not just with China but with South Korea as well.
To do this, Abe doesn’t have to change his views on history, but he has to keep them to himself.
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Since Mr. Abe assumed office nearly two years ago, he has sought to win friends by visiting 49 countries but, notably, until last weekend, did not visit China. Not coincidentally, he has also not visited South Korea, where he is also not welcome.
Japan cannot afford to remain isolated in its own neighborhood. It is high time that it mended fences not just with China but with South Korea as well. To do this, Mr. Abe doesn’t have to change his views on history, but he has to keep them to himself.