The first formal meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping is a tentative step toward repairing ties between two nations whose economies stand to gain from burying mutual mistrust.
The nations broke their two-and-a-half year summit drought yesterday with an uneasy handshake, yet face harder work ahead to overcome discord over a territorial dispute and Japan’s wartime past.
“The meeting could lead to a long-term mechanism in which both sides learn to work with each other despite the fact they don’t like each other and they have a conflict,” Ben Schreer, a senior analyst of defense strategy at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, said by phone.
With China having eclipsed Japan as the world’s second-largest economy, Abe has sought to improve ties with his nation’s biggest trading partner. Even as Chinese tourists flock to Japan, Japanese investment in China slumped by half in the first half of 2014 and surveys point to animosity among the public in both nations.
“The Japanese know that they have to give way somewhat to growing Chinese power in East Asia, but the Chinese know that Japan will continue to be a big economic player,” Schreer said.
While Abe has long sought a meeting, his visit to Beijing for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit is his first trip to China since taking office in December 2012. The discussion lasted about 25 minutes. Televised footage showed the leaders barely making eye contact as they stood stiffly without smiling ahead of the meeting.
China’s official Xinhua News Agency gave greater prominence on the website to a picture of Xi meeting the leader of Papua New Guinea — with its population of 7.3 million — than with Abe.
“This is a first step toward improving ties between Japan and China and returning to the starting point of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests,” Abe told reporters afterward. The countries will work toward a mechanism to enhance maritime communications, he said.
Xi told Abe that he hopes Japan will continue to follow the path of peaceful development and adopt prudent military and security policies, Xinhua reported.
“I hope this summit meeting would change the trend or tendency of our bilateral relations and we can expect to see positive steps taken in different fields and levels,” Atsushi Ueno, director of the China division of Japan’s foreign ministry, told reporters in Beijing yesterday. “Both leaders agreed this is a first step, not a goal. So we should make an effort to continue improving bilateral relations.”
Abe also had his first meeting with South Korean President Park Geun-hye in eight months after the two were seated next to each other at an official dinner yesterday. Ties between the two have also been frayed by disagreements over whether Japan has atoned sufficiently for the use of Korean women as sex slaves by Japanese troops during World War II.
The two leaders “agreed to encourage progress in the director-general discussions” over the issue, Park’s spokesman Min Kyung-wook said today by phone.
The talks between Abe and Xi of China may help stop a deterioration in ties, even as full reconciliation remains distant amid a row over the sovereignty of islands in the East China Sea. Abe compounded tensions last year by visiting a Tokyo war shrine seen by some as a symbol of Japan’s past aggression in Asia.
“If they can build on this, the future looks positive and mutually beneficial,” Steve Tsang, head of the School of Contemporary Chinese Studies at the University of Nottingham in the U.K, said of yesterday’s talks. “But it takes two to tango, and the risk of the gains being made so far being reversed cannot be dismissed out of hand.”
High-level talks last week between the countries produced an agreement on overcoming political obstacles that paved the way for yesterday’s meeting.
The two countries in that framework agreement acknowledged their differing views on the tensions around the islands, known as Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in Chinese, and agreed to prevent the situation from deteriorating. To avoid “unforeseen incidents” in the area, they pledged to build a crisis-management mechanism.
Both nations agreed to gradually restart various political, diplomatic and security talks that were frozen as ties soured. China has demanded Japan do more to acknowledge its militant past and the countries said in their joint statement they now agreed to face history directly.
Japan’s purchase in September 2012 of three of the East China Sea islands sparked friction with China and damaged trade ties that are still recovering. Chinese coast guard vessels frequently enter what Japan regards as its territorial waters around the island chain, increasing the risk of conflict.
“The framework agreement between China and Japan, and the important symbolism of the meeting is the long overdue return of pragmatism towards each other,” said Kerry Brown, executive director of the University of Sydney’s China Studies Centre. “The key thing is that both sides in meeting have shown they agree things have to be mended now.”
Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott said it was encouraging that Xi and Abe arranged a meeting.
“It’s in everyone’s interests that all the countries of our region get on as well as possible,” he said in an interview yesterday in Beijing. “We will all advance together or none of us will advance at all.”