Kim Kyung-Hoon / REUTERS

Japan Warms to China

Why Abe and Xi Are Slowly Mending Ties

The geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia is changing. China has been rapidly modernizing its military and assertively pressing its expansive territorial claims in the East China and South China Seas. The United States’ commitment to the region has come into question. And North Korea has been expanding its nuclear and missile programs, despite international pressure.

All of these developments have led China and Japan to cautiously rethink their ties. Although trust between the two states remains elusive, in recent months, their governments have taken some incremental steps to stabilize their troubled relations. It seems that Beijing and Tokyo have calculated that their long-running feud is costing them too much and adding unnecessary uncertainty to their region’s security. 

Perhaps the clearest signs of this change have been Tokyo’s attempts to resume high-level summitry with Beijing. Such meetings between Chinese and Japanese leaders have been scarce in recent years due to historical differences and geopolitical competition between the two countries. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping did not meet until 2014, some two years after both leaders took office, as their governments were squabbling over the disputed Senkaku Islands (known as the Diaoyu Islands in China) in the East China Sea. 

But this May, on the sidelines of China’s Belt and Road Forum in Beijing, Toshihiro Nikai, the secretary-general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party and a key Abe aide, passed on a letter to China’s leadership indicating Japan’s interest in hosting reciprocal summits in both countries before 2018. The next month, Abe called for a trilateral summit with the leaders of China and South Korea. And on July 8, Abe and Xi met on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Hamburg.

That meeting didn’t produce any breakthroughs, but it was the first encounter between the two leaders in nearly a year, and it should set the stage for more substantive visits in the coming months. Forty-five years after China and Japan established diplomatic

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