The first month of 2015 has witnessed a slow thawing of China-Japan relations. Following up their Beijing summit meeting in November of 2014, the two Asian giants resumed two maritime security talks in January of 2015 – one between their two defense departments, and the other working level diplomatic talks between the governments. So far there is no sign that China and Japan will quickly progress with a substantive deal, given their long-standing mutual suspicions, friction, and arguments. The resumption of the talks, however, represents the return of diplomatic pragmatism in dealing with their protracted disagreements over the East China Sea.

The defense officers meeting, which commenced on January 12-13, is a trial balloon to see if the militaries can repair their ties since contact was fully broken in June 2012. Participants on both sides are low-level officers responsible for military-to-military relations. The media has reported that China and Japan are close to a deal on establishing an at-sea hotline, but this is not a breakthrough. As early as 2010, maritime tensions between Beijing and Tokyo arose from the detention of a Chinese trawler captain and compelled both sides to seek a maritime communication mechanism to prevention conflict escalation. By June 2012, both militaries were close to a deal to build an emergency communication mechanism. Unfortunately, after the Noda Administration’s decision to “nationalize” the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands, and China’s intrusion into the islands’ territorial waters with surveillance boats, progress on the deal ceased entirely.

An additional round of “working level talks” by senior officials from both countries, also took place at Yokohama on January 22-23, however, and this channel is more intriguing. The talks, composed of multiple departmental officials from both sides, are aimed at addressing China-Japan animosity in the East China Sea, and strive to mitigate their maritime disputes. If the talks continue, they will be a promising pathway to rebuilding the “consensual process” in the East China Sea contestation.

Beijing and Tokyo have distance between them on numerous issues, including the sovereignty dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, EEZ delimitations, specification of joint development zones, fishing administration, and military surveillance in unclarified EEZ areas. The worst part of the China-Japan contest is their overlapping Air Defense Identity Zones (ADIZ). Japan has condemned Beijing for being unilateral and provocative in its first ADIZ announcement in the East China Sea in November, 2013. Obviously, Beijing’s decision to establish an ADIZ that covers disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku air space is a way to forcefully escalate pressure vis-à-vis Japan in return for Tokyo’s consistent refusal to admit the existence of a maritime territorial dispute between two countries, which in turn means the issue cannot be negotiated. In the eyes of the Japanese, on contrary, China’s ADIZ decision is a new indicator of its coercive intention.

Resumption of the two sets of talks is a positive step. Political contacts at different levels of government may begin to warm again, and channels of political communication can accordingly re-open. Last week, a governor-level Chinese official visited Japan, another signal of political thawing. And despite its shortness, rituality, and rigidity, the Xi -Abe summit meeting in Beijing in November, confirmed the resilience of China-Japan relations. It remains quite unrealistic to assume, however, that China and Japan will firmly and explicitly improve their relations. Maritime security talks may not achieve an obvious breakthrough. There are several reasons why this is the case.

First, diplomatic pragmatism does not necessarily beget a political resolution or end Sino-Japanese maritime discord. There is no sign yet that domestic politics will permit the political leadership on one or both sides to change policy course. Instead, both capitals maintain the same tense tones they have used in the past. China just declared its decision to conduct a military parade on September 3, 2015, the 70th anniversary day of Japan’s surrendering day. Japan is not comfortable with this decision. Furthermore, Abe now is exploiting the chance of 70th anniversary to push an “Abe Statement”, implicitly purporting to modify “Murayama Statement” in 1995 which sincerely recognized Japan’s World War II atrocities and constituted official remorse. The irony is that historical tensions between Beijing and Tokyo seem untouchable, even with the resumption of talks. There is little evidence that both leaders will significantly compromise over maritime disputes without emergence of a broader political rapprochement.

Second, both sides are stalled when it comes to the issue of what should be prioritized in maritime talks. Beijing has allegedly asked for Tokyo’s acceptance of China’s ADIZ, and attempted to resolve their ADIZ conflicts first. But Tokyo seems to see no way can change its opposition to China’s East China Sea zone, and it is not clear how much progress the parties will make if they cannot negotiate on this issue.

Third, competing concerns still top China and Japan’s agendas. De-escalating their territorial conflict now extends well beyond the sovereignty claim itself and has become a matter of managing power relations in the region. The power rivalry between Beijing and Tokyo is hard to defuse, as the two sides are locked in a competition that is based on geography and taking place during a power-shift. Before their security dilemma can be eased, China and Japan will have to find ways to coexist in the maritime Asia.

Maritime security talks between China and Japan nonetheless remain meaningful and productive. The entire international community would not rather see their rivalry spiral into conflict. The return to talks allows them to shift some attention to other issues in their relationship, and resuming a working link will add to their ability to manage crises. That will conceivably benefit regional stability in East Asia and better for both countries.

About Zhu Feng

Dr. Zhu Feng is Executive Director of China Center for Collaborative Studies of the South China Sea at Nanjing University. He is also professor of international relations there. Dr. Zhu Feng used to be a professor at School of International Studies of Peking University and Vice President of Institute of International & Strategic Studies of PKU. He moved onto Nanjing University to head this new institution from August of 2014.