China-Japan ties: Will summit diplomacy end the 5-year freeze?

November 20, 2017 14:36
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping share an awkward handshake during a meeting in 2014, when they held formal talks for the first time after they took office. Photo: Reuters

Japan and China are experiencing a definite, if limited, thaw in their relations. Up until last week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who assumed office in December 2012, had only met Chinese President Xi Jinping four times and Premier Li Keqiang twice, all on the margins of multilateral conferences.

The first such meeting, during the APEC gathering in Beijing three years ago, saw an unsmiling Xi turn his back on Abe's interpreter as she was translating his words – unusually rude diplomatic behavior. Since then, the overall relationship has remained cold if not frigid.

This stemmed from the previous Japanese government's decision in 2012 to nationalize the Senkaku, or Diaoyu, islands, which are also claimed by China. Japan's motive was to thwart a Japanese right-winger's plan to take them over in order to take provocative actions against China. However, China suspected some dark dastardly plot and the bilateral relationship entered a deep freeze that has lasted five years.

Six months ago, Abe sent Xi a letter via a high-level emissary, Toshihiro Nikai, Secretary General of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, suggesting a resumption of regular summit meetings to be held in each other's country to normalize relations.

Xi called Nikai, who was in Beijing for the Belt and Road Forum, an "old friend". However, China has been evasive. The Asahi Shimbun reported that, according to "a source who accompanied Nikai", the Chinese side responded that they "would like to consider" Abe's proposal.

From China's standpoint, Japan's willingness to take part in the Belt and Road Forum marked a step forward, as did its indication of interest to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. Up to now, Japan has joined the United States in boycotting the AIIB.

China apparently wants Japan to make additional concessions before consenting to an exchange of high-level visits.

In recent weeks, both Abe and Xi have strengthened their positions domestically, and each may well feel more confident to deal with the other. Abe won a new term as prime minister this month after his party won a huge majority in the lower house, and Xi just gained a second five-year term as China's leader.

In addition to improving ties with China, Abe has also been moving to strengthen his position internationally. Japan has provided leadership to keep together the remaining 11 members of the Trans-Pacific Partnership after the American withdrawal and, last week, an agreement was reached in Danang, Vietnam, on the sidelines of the APEC meeting.

Japan has also successfully revived a proposal Abe originally made a decade ago, during his first term as prime minister, for a dialogue among four democracies – Japan, the United States, Australia and India – with the unspoken aim of dealing with China.

Senior diplomats of the four countries held their first meeting in Manila on Nov. 12, on the sidelines of the Asean summit, and "discussed measures to ensure a free and open international order based on the rule of law in the Indo-Pacific."

On Nov. 11, in Danang, Abe and Xi held a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of APEC and, two days later, in Manila, he and Premier Li held talks. This was a big step forward and Abe disclosed afterwards that Xi, at their meeting, had said there would be a "fresh start" of the China-Japan relationship.

This seems to have spurred Abe on to greater efforts to improve relations with China. At a press conference in Manila on Nov. 15, before returning to Tokyo, Abe said: "At next year's milestone of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Japan-China peace and friendship treaty, we will propel Japan-China relations to a new level by deepening our exchanges, such as high-level visits."

A trilateral summit, involving China, Japan and South Korea, is supposed to be held this year in Japan, but time is running out. Abe would like to host such a session, and welcome Li to Japan. Next year, the rotating trilateral meeting is scheduled to be held in China, so Abe would visit that country. After that, he hopes, Xi will accept an invitation to visit Japan for a proper summit meeting. So far, that is still only in the realm of hope.

Despite their historical burdens, rivalries and suspicions, Japan and China need to improve their relationship, and both sides show signs of wanting to end the prolonged freeze. China’s leaders have been talking about a "community of common destiny" for the region. This can be achieved only as a result of serious and prolonged diplomatic efforts at the highest levels, not by snubbing their neighbors' leaders.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.