Analysts are still searching for a pithy way to encapsulate the outcome Nov. 10’s somewhat enigmatic encounter in Beijing between Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping. What exactly did the two leaders agree to? What factors brought them together, and how much will the two countries hedge on the commitment to build a relationship of mutual benefit?
While far from a “breakthrough” in a Japan-China relationship that had become ominously confrontational in recent years, the diplomacy that culminated in the Abe-Xi meeting is widely seen as a important step toward reducing tensions, and a much-needed signal to working-level Chinese government and military officials, business executives, and nongovernmental organizations that it’s okay to resume communications that had largely grown quiet.
But peace has hardly broken out in the East China Sea. Diplomats managed to pave to way for the November 10 Abe-Xi meeting by finessing substantial disagreements. Three days earlier the two sides simultaneously issued separate statements about Japan-China relations that allowed each to rather improbably claim to have made no concessions, but to have moved the other a bit off of fixed positions.
Both claims can’t be true of course. The diplomatic fig leaf, while important to corralling Abe and Xi in a room together for a few minutes and slightly opening the door to some semblance of normal dialogue, also unintentionally but inevitably served to highlight the stark differences and thick layers of mistrust that still prevail between Tokyo and Beijing.
Differences among analysts boil down to this: “At least the two sides are finally talking again,” versus “Sure, but look how entrenched the underlying differences remain,” perhaps demonstrating once again the old adage that two seeming opposites can be true at the same time.
Down on Abe
Xi Jinping did little to make Abe feel welcome in Beijing. China never retracted its official preconditions for a Xi-Abe meeting: that Japan’s leader commit to no more visits to the divisive Yasukuni Shrine, and that he acknowledge that a dispute exists over the sovereignty of the Senkaku/Diaohu islands in the East China Sea, which Japan now administratively controls and intensely claims as its own.
China’s official media repeatedly implied that a reluctant Xi would be doing Abe a favor by granting him an audience, for which Japan had made “repeated requests.”
Before Abe departed for Beijing on November 9, to attend the APEC summit that China was hosting, Xi’s office had not even made clear that a formal meeting would occur, fanning speculation that the expected encounter might be impolitely limited to a mere handshake. (However unlikely the latter, Xi’s team seemed to revel in keeping Abe’s people uneasy.)
When time came for the actual meeting, Xi kept Abe waiting at the designated spot, and icily stared away as Abe attempted a cordial greeting.
There still are no authoritative detailed accounts as to what occurred inside the meeting, though the atmosphere appears to have remained quite chilly. Official briefings amounted to spin to make the respective governments look good, or repetition of points made in the November 7 statements. In that vein, Japanese officials emphasized that Abe spoke of his vision of mutually-beneficial ties between Japan and China, and peaceful development of the region. Japan’s briefers were particularly concerned to emphasize that Japan had not made any concession to China’s two preconditions for a meeting: Abe did not alter Tokyo’s stance that the Senkaku Islands are unquestionably Japan’s sovereign territory, and he did not make any commitment to not visit Yasukuni Shrine.
“Abe had no intention of meeting either condition,” says Michael Green, vice president of the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington. “Concerning Yasukuni, my guess is that the Japanese negotiators indicated to the Chinese that Abe did not intend to go, or had no plan to go, without committing not to go. They probably gave enough, without crossing the line into a full-fledged commitment.”
By contrast, China’s official news agency Xinhua left the clear impression that Xi spent a good deal of time lecturing Abe on Japan’s wartime transgressions, quoting Xi as having urged Japan to “do more things that help enhance the mutual trust” between the two countries. “Severe difficulties have emerged in Sino-Japanese relations in recent two years and the rights and wrongs behind them are crystal clear,” Xinhua quote Xi as having said.
A separate Xinhua commentary said: “The onus is primarily on Abe. It is Tokyo that cast the ice spell on China-Japan relations; it is also Tokyo that called for the Xi-Abe meeting. Now that Abe has talked the talk, he now needs to walk the walk.”
In essence, says China specialist Jonathan Pollack of the Brookings Institution: “Xi put Abe on probation.”
Before Abe and Xi met on November 10, there was considerable confusion over the separate November 7 statements issued by the two governments.
Contrary to many initial press accounts, the two governments did not issue a single, joint statement. There were in fact four separate statements: China issued one in Chinese and one in English, while Japan issued one in Japanese and another in English. The statements, while diplomatically framed to overlap in key parts, actually differed in substantial ways, leaving little room for a sanguine assessment that the two sides “agreed to disagree.”
Dr. Adam Liff (www.adamphailliff.com), a scholar with the Princeton-Harvard China and the World Program, conducted a point-by-point comparative analysis of the Chinese-, Japanese-, and English-language versions of the November 7 statements, which he titled “Principles Without Consensus,” (an apparent play on the headline that Beijing gave its versions: “China and Japan Reach Four-Point Principled Agreement”). In a separate analysis for The National Interest, Liff wrote that the varying statements and “Xi’s reportedly cold reception of Abe” make clear “that political relations, even if no longer frozen, remain on ice.”
A separate analysis of the dueling English versions prepared by this reporter on November 7 highlighted the two-paragraph introduction included only in Beijing’s version, and the vastly different wording of point #3 of the four points “agreed” to by the two governments.
In its two-paragraph introduction, Beijing quoted its chief negotiator, the formidable State Councilor Yang Jiechi, as insisting “The Chinese side has reiterated its solemn position, urging the Japanese side to face up to and properly handle such issues of great sensitivity as history and the Diaoyu [Senkaku) Islands.”
By contrast, Japan’s statement – headlined “Regarding Discussions Toward Improving Japan-China Relations” – contained no corresponding introduction by Yang’s counterpart, National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi.
Meanwhile, the differing wording of the critical “point 3” -- dealing with tensions in the East China Sea – served to highlight the intensity of feeling conveyed in Yang’s introductory comments. China’s version says that “different positions exist between them regarding the tensions which have emerged in recent years over the Diaoyu Islands and some waters in the East China Sea.” While not reiterating its claim to sovereignty over the islands, China makes explicit reference to the islands in the context of “different positions” regarding “tensions.”
By contrast, Japan’s version says the two sides have “different views” concerning “the emergence of tensions situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands.” Japan says the “tensions” are “in the waters,” but does not acknowledge that there is tension over the Senkakus themselves.
From Tokyo’s perspective, says Green of CSIS, Japan’s English version of point 3 was “implicitly referring to military pressures from China, but did not acknowledge that the issue of sovereignty is up for grabs, or is a matter of dispute.”
But from Beijing’s perspective says Bonnie Glaser, a China specialist at CSIS, China believes it has already achieved a degree of administrative influence over the Diaoyu/Senkakus, a point reinforced recently by China’s quasi-official Global Times. The paper wrote on November 7 that Japan, by agreeing to sit down and discuss a crisis management mechanism, has effectively admitted “that disputes over the Diaoyu Islands’ sovereignty have become the new reality.”
Despite the continuing tensions captured in the dueling November 7 statements, both China and Japan are heavily invested in trying to bring a return to some sort of bilateral diplomatic normalcy.
Abe has come under considerable criticism for allowing his controversial views on history contribute to a downturn in relations with China. Japan and China have a mutual interest in assisting the other’s faltering economy. And both have an interest in preventing an accidental air or naval clash in the East China Sea.
Meanwhile, China is anxious to see a revival of new foreign direct investment from Japan, the rate of which has fallen by almost half over the past year.
Many analysts also believe that by meeting with Abe, Xi has admitted that efforts to isolate Abe and drive a wedge between the US and Japan on security issues have failed. China’s military pressure around the Senkaku Islands has only served to deepen US-Japan security ties, and strengthen Abe’s push for Japan to exercise the right of collective self-defense.
Robert Manning of the Atlantic Council in Washington argues that China is similarly rethinking its approach to Southeast Asia, where China’s heavy pressure on the Philippines and Vietnam over disputed territories has resulted in many nations in the region welcoming the much-heralded US “rebalance” toward East Asia. China, for now at least, is applying a more sophisticated mix of military/diplomatic pressure with economic overtures to strengthen its sway in the region.
Shortly after the APEC meeting in Beijing earlier this month (which provided the occasion for Abe and Xi to meet) and the subsequent East Asia Summit in Myanmar, the US, Japan, and Australia met to deepen security ties as a means to address regional wariness about China’s rising power.
While powerful economic and geopolitical factors finally compelled Abe and Xi to meet, several intermediaries were critical to bring the two leaders together. From Tokyo, former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda put his prestige on the line by twice meeting with Xi Jinping in Beijing, once in July and again in late October. On both occasions, Abe took the risk of dispatching his top foreign policy advisor Shotaro Yachi, to accompany Fukuda. Most analysts agree that Fukuda, who is known to deeply disregard Abe, was not looking to do any political favors for the prime minister. Fukuda’s return to diplomacy reflected broad opinion among Japan’s foreign policy and business elite about the urgency of diffusing the diplomatic stalemate between Tokyo and Beijing.
For his part, Xi turned to two close childhood friends to help grease the diplomatic skids with Tokyo. Li Xiaolin, chief of the Chinese People’s Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries, is a kind of nongovernmental ‘foreign minister’ of China, and emerged in the last year as a key link to Japanese businessmen, parliamentarians, and Abe himself. The daughter of China’s late president Li Xiannian, Li traveled to Tokyo in October to meet with Abe.
Xi also used another childhood friend, the reform-minded Hu Deping, to communicate with Abe. Hu, the son of the late Chinese leader Hu Yaobang, overcame some disgruntlement in Beijing and visited Tokyo in April, where he met with Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga. In a scripted move, Abe popped into the Hu-Suga meeting. Hu was carrying a photo of Abe accompanying his late father, then-Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, at a meeting with Hu’s father. The younger Hu was also in the photo. During his visit, Hu also met with Fukuda, and current Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida.
Looking ahead, analysts have identified several markers to gauge the extent of thawing in Japan-China relations: China’s air and naval presence in the vicinity of the Senkaku Islands; progress in negotiations for a crisis management mechanism for the East China Sea; Abe’s decision on visits to Yasukuni Shrine; and commemorations next year marking 70 years since the end of World War II.
Japan Coast Guard statistics, posted on the new Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative (http://amti.csis.org) run by CSIS, indicate that China’s operations around the Senkakus are running high again. In addition, People’s Liberation Army naval operations in November are some 30-40 percent closer to the Senkakus than they have historically been.
“Pressure from China, and the danger of an incident at sea, is undiminished,” says Green of CSIS.
Meanwhile, Japan and China have resumed talks on establishment of a maritime communications mechanism that would provide a link between their respective air and naval forces. There is no timetable for the link to be up and running. Analysts also point out that military-to-military hotlines function best as supplements to effective, high-level political communications.
Concerning the 70th year commemoration of the end of World War II, Beijing (and others) will undoubtedly be watching closely to see if Abe seeks to water down the 1995 Murayama Statement, in which Japan apologized for its “colonial rule” of Korea and for its “invasion” of China. Abe, and his co-thinkers from the “revisionist” school of history, have long resented both terms.
Any move in that direction, or another visit by Abe to Yasukuni, would run the huge risk of reversing whatever progress had been made toward resumption of normal diplomatic ties between Japan and China.