On November 10, 2014, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Xi Jinping of China held a bilateral meeting on the margins of APEC in Beijing. Though a summit meeting between these two Asian giants should be a matter of course given their economic interdependence and rising geopolitical tensions, the Chinese side had refused to meet Abe until now. The two leaders’ first official exchange in person does not eliminate underlying problems in Sino-Japanese relations, but it does send the signal throughout the Chinese system that engagement with Tokyo is necessary — and this might in turn open greater opportunities for transparency and confidence-building.
Until now Beijing had adamantly demanded two conditions for a summit. The first was that Abe publicly commit to not visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine; the second was that he admit the existence of a dispute with China over the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Abe would not do the first for political and personal reasons and the Japanese government would not do the second because it maintains that the Senkakus are irrefutably Japanese sovereign territory and therefore no “dispute” exists to speak of (a position identical to Britain’s position on the Falklands and most other similar international situations). Tokyo was particularly loathe to concede these points under Chinese pressure around the Senkakus, since that would send a signal of weakness that would affect the entire Western Pacific.
Beijing ultimately did not receive what it claimed to demand on either condition. On the first condition, a November 7 joint Sino-Japanese statement declared that both sides were “facing history squarely and looking forward to the future,” which provided room for each side to interpret the outcome as necessary for domestic audiences. Whether there was an explicit Japanese pledge not to visit Yasukuni is unclear. I doubt it was black and white, but most informed observers in Tokyo do expect that Abe will not visit the shrine in the near future having fulfilled his personal desire to do so in his first year in office and perhaps this was conveyed. On the second Chinese condition, however, there can be little doubt: Abe did not cave to the demand that he acknowledge a sovereignty dispute. Instead, Abe and Xi agreed to “recognize that the two countries hold a different view over the tense situation in the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands.” This was a skillful formulation that did not acknowledge a legal dispute about the sovereignty of the islands, but did allow the Chinese side to point to some new tone in Japanese declaratory policy.
Both leaders had reasons to want a summit. Xi would have looked petty to other leaders if he had refused to meet Abe while hosting an APEC summit designed to improve cooperation in the region. The diversion of Japanese foreign direct investment from China to Southeast Asia has also alarmed Chinese officials concerned about lower growth rates at home. Finally, Beijing’s strategy to isolate Abe has largely failed outside of South Korea, since the Prime Minister has held successful summits with over 100 world leaders in two years of whirlwind diplomacy. For his part, Abe needs to maintain a focus on economic recovery and recognizes that reassuring moves with Beijing help build confidence in the U.S.-Japan alliance as Washington and Tokyo revise Defense Guidelines to strengthen deterrence in the region. Former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda also deserves credit for changing the tone in bilateral relations with his frequent visits to China.
The test of whether the Abe-Xi meeting really marks a change in East China Sea tensions, of course lies ahead. Will Chinese maritime incursions and aerial overflights around the Senkakus abate so that diplomacy can proceed on firm ground? Building a “strategic relationship of mutual benefit” will take much more than crafty language. But this is a start.