A coast guard vessel refuels at a port in Ishigaki, Japan. These ships are on the frontlines in the country’s defence of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands
The recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has drawn much media attention. After weeks of back-door diplomacy and consultations, China finally agreed to arrange a meeting between the two leaders during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Summit. The greeting between Xi and Abe was very awkward by any standard. Neither of them smiled, and Xi abruptly turned to the camera following a very frosty handshake.
While Abe tried to talk to Xi, the latter did not utter a single word. The ensuing meeting between the two — lasting only about 25 minutes — had a somewhat optimistic outcome. The two sides agreed to improve the maritime crisis-management mechanism around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. In the four-point consensus reached by the two countries, Japan agreed that competing views exist on the Diaoyu/Senkaku dispute, which is not a trivial compromise given Japan’s previous stance that no differences exist on the territorial issue. The agreement also calls for a gradual improvement in the political and economic realms, especially in overcoming political difficulties on the thorny historical issue of Japanese atrocities during WWII.
The short summit, though by no means fruitful or even enjoyable for either leader, nonetheless has important implications. It soothes tensions that have severely hampered crucial economic relations in East Asia, and reduces the chance of a military conflict in the case of an unexpected incident occurring around the island. Furthermore, the summit sends a signal to other concerned countries that a more stable and peaceful environment is attainable in East Asia. The U.S., who long viewed the dispute as an obstacle in developing closer Sino-U.S. relations and a liability in the U.S.-Japan Defense Treaty, welcomed the summit between Xi and Abe. South Korea is also likely to welcome the reduction of tensions in its neighborhood, as it may no longer have to choose a side in a potential conflict between an American ally and China.
Of course, the frosty greeting between Xi and Abe still reminds people that the Sino-Japanese relation is extremely fragile. It would be prudent not to expect substantial improvements in the bilateral relation in the short term. Japan still does not recognize the competing sovereignty claims on the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, but merely acknowledges that China has a different view on this question. Likewise, Abe did not pledge to not visit the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, and it is very possible that he will visit the Shrine again due to his nationalistic credentials and support base. Nothing concrete was agreed on besides mere agreements on the need to improve overall relations. Xi’s stern face, after all, demonstrates that the Chinese public is still nationalistic and anti-Japan.
Conversely, one should not pay too much attention to the chilly greeting. There are some accusations online that Xi was rude, but Abe’s cold reception should surprise no one given the still tense bilateral relations. The fact that the summit itself is taking place is encouraging news. It provides a valuable opportunity for both countries to contribute to the peace and prosperity of Asia, in so far as they have the political will necessary to overcome domestic opposition. Since both Xi and Abe have a reputation of being nationalistic, they actually have the ability to mitigate nationalistic criticism at home.
Applying the same realist rationale that Nixon used when he approached China during the height of the Cold War, Japan and China should achieve a rapprochement not because they love each other, but because they share the same security environment. The two economic powerhouses simply cannot afford to let their relations remain ice-cold forever.
Zihao Liu is a senior at Cornell University, majoring in History as part of the College Scholar Program.