Abe and Xi finally hold a summit, but any real progress in bilateral ties on the horizon?

By Professor Chris Hughes

The ‘will they, won’t they?’ guessing finally came to an end on 10 November when Japan’s prime minister, Abe Shinzo, and Chinese president, Xi Jinping, held bilateral talks at the APEC summit in Beijing. This was the first ever summit between Abe and Xi, and the first Sino-Japanese summit for nearly two and half years. The parlous state of relations between the two neighbours, especially in regard to the disputed sovereignty of the Senkau/Diaoyu Islands and colonial history, meant that many speculated there was no certainty of any bilateral summit at all, even though diplomatic protocol dictated that Beijing as the APEC host should offer the opportunity to Japan. In the end the summit was held, but this was down to some clever diplomatic maneuvering, and very much down to the wire time-wise. Even then, the body language between Abe and Xi for the 25-minute meeting did not look comfortable—they really did not seem particularly pleased to see each other. The exact impact of the summit in alleviating Sino-Japanese relations, which at times have been thought of as poor to the point of precipitating military conflict, is yet to be divined.

The summit was made possible by a ‘joint’ statement issued by both sides. In fact, although the statements were released simultaneously and contained much overlap in coverage and phrasing, they were also quite separate in many senses, so speaking of the remaining bilateral differences. Over the key question of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu an ingenious formula was found. China prior to the APEC summit had insisted that as a condition of the meeting Japan should drop its position of denying there was a territorial dispute and then China would potentially be prepared to shelve the dispute. Japan could not accede to this approach as it maintains the islands are clearly part of Japanese sovereign territory and thus there is no discussion to be had about any kind dispute. Japan, in any case, insisted on no preconditions for a summit.

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Diplomats on both sides thus agreed differing wording for the ‘joint’ statements to open up room for a meeting. China stressed that tensions had developed over the islands because of differing ‘positions’ between the two states, so retaining its room to argue that it has not relented on an official stance asserting its sovereignty over the islands. Japan, on the other hand, stressed that tensions had risen because of different ‘views’ on the islands, so obviating any discussion of Japan recognising China’s stance on there being a dispute. This was all diplomatic hair-splitting, but nevertheless opened up room for both sides to acknowledge that the islands were the cause of differences and tensions and that they could at least have a dialogue about how to manage these. Consequently, Abe and Xi agreed to move forward long-mooted attempts to create bilateral crisis-management mechanisms in the East China Sea to avoid inadvertent conflicts over the islands.

Likewise, on the issue of history and Abe’s past visit and potential future visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, a face-saving formula was devised. Abe had refused to yield on making no further visits to Yasukuni as a precondition for a summit, but was prepared to reiterate Japan’s past stance alongside China that both sides would work to squarely address historical legacies.

The ingenuity of diplomats and some sense that both sides had reached a stalemate in their relations, plus Chinese concerns about declining Japanese economic investment because of poor political ties, all combined to make the summit possible. The resumption of the highest-level dialogue has to be a positive step for relations between these extremely important neighbours that in many ways hold the key to future stability of the region. The striving for a crisis management mechanism, such as a hotline between leaders to respond to disputes in the East China Sea, is also essential, and indeed a measure called for in previous PAIS blogs (quote my previous blog here?)

However, the summit alone is clearly insufficient and the artful diplomatic language has left untouched the main sources of bilateral tensions. For it is still the case that Japan refuses to acknowledge there is any territorial dispute, and conversely China has not explicitly pledged to cease any of its maritime activities around the islands which have contributed to tensions. Most potentially explosively of all, Abe has not directly promised to cease any further visits to Yasukuni. All the sides have agreed is in essence that they are not agreeing on certain issues, that they should try to restart dialogue, and that they should try to prevent any further deterioration of ties. These are, of course, essential first points and the hope has to be both sides can make inroads from hereon into the substantive issues. But as yet relations remain as fragile and thus hazardous as before.

Christopher HughesChris Hughes is Professor of International Politics and Japanese Studies, a Research Associate at the Centre for the Study of Globalisation and Regionalisation, and Head of the Department of Politics and International Studies (PAIS) at Warwick. He is currently an Associate in Research at Harvard’s Reischauer Institute of Japanese Studies and co-editor of the Pacific Review. His research interests include Japanese foreign and security policy and regionalism in East Asia.


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