China's President Xi Jinping shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, November 10, 2014.
Kim Kyung-Hoon / Courtesy Reuters

After months of back-channel diplomacy, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese leader Xi Jinping finally met this week on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. The Abe-Xi meeting is long overdue and represents the first time the leaders from the world’s second and third biggest economies have talked since Abe took office in December 2012. Beijing had simply refused to meet with Tokyo at the summit level ever since the previous Japanese administration made the ill-fated decision to purchase three of the disputed Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands in September 2012.

It isn’t only the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands dispute that has troubled relations between Beijing and Tokyo. China accuses Abe and his cabinet of historical revisionism, for one. Beijing points to Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine—a Shinto shrine dedicated to Japan’s war dead from a wide range of conflicts, from the Satsuma Rebellion to World War II—last December, along with repeated visits by several of his cabinet ministers, as proof that the current government wants to reinterpret the traditional narrative of Japanese culpability during World War II. Abe, meanwhile, has called out China for stoking international and nationalist sentiment against Japan through its education system and its desire to politicize its troubled history with Japan. Similarly, Abe has railed against Beijing’s repeated intrusions in the territorial waters around the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands as an affront to international law and a rules-based system.

The Abe-Xi meeting is thus a major breakthrough, and it comes mostly thanks to significant diplomatic pressure from Japan to hold such a meeting. For months, the Abe administration had sent former high-level Japanese politicians to Beijing as envoys. For example, just two weeks before the Abe-Xi meeting, Japan’s former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda met with Xi on the heels of the Boao Forum for Asia held in Beijing. Similarly, Tokyo’s new governor, Yoichi Masuzoe, met with Xi this past April. Fukuda’s and Masuzoe’s meetings with Xi came amid a flurry of other ad hoc sit-downs between Japanese politicians and senior Chinese leadership over the past several months.

Abe’s insistence on talking to Xi dates to when he first took office. He declared at the time that he thought high-level dialogue was the best way to improve troubled bilateral ties. Nevertheless, even though Abe wanted to repair relations with Beijing, he was also determined to take a hard-line approach on the islands dispute and not be seen as caving in to Chinese pressure. So Abe has always insisted that there be no preconditions to talks, for example, something that was unacceptable to Beijing, which did not want to award Abe with a high-level meeting without concessions on history and the territorial row.

Last week, senior officials from both sides finally managed to come together on an agreed joint statement that paved the way for a bilateral summit at APEC. The statement declares that the two sides would continue to build a “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests.” To finally bring Beijing to the table, it seems that Abe had to make two nuanced offers. First, Abe has likely given back-channel—although not official—assurances that he will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine for the remainder of his tenure as prime minister. Indeed, according to multiple reports in Japan, Fukuda relayed this pledge to Beijing during his trips to meet with Chinese officials over the past few months. The joint statement vaguely hints at this point, noting that both sides “shared some recognition that, following the spirit of squarely facing history and advancing toward the future, they would overcome political difficulties that affect their bilateral relations.” The wording lacked an official pledge on Yasukuni—which would have been politically impossible for Abe—but did acquiesce to Beijing’s request that Japan acknowledge the historical issues before a meeting.

Second, and more controversial, Abe has agreed to recognize that there is some form of disagreement in the East China Sea with Beijing, while still affirming Japan’s long-stated line that the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands are inherent parts of Japanese territory. Specifically, Tokyo and Beijing agreed “they had different views as to the emergence of tense situations in recent years in the waters of the East China Sea, including those around the Senkaku Islands, and shared the view that, through dialogue and consultation, they would prevent the deterioration of the situation, establish a crisis management mechanism and avert the rise of unforeseen circumstances.” The statement on the islands spat is significant, and although it might appear that Japan succumbed to Chinese pressure to admit there is a dispute, a closer look at the statement reveals that the only acknowledgment is that the two sides disagree. Indeed, the fact that Japan avoided any mention of sovereignty in the statement should be seen as a diplomatic win for Tokyo.

Abe’s acknowledgment of a disagreement in the East China Sea, regardless of the wording, is a significant step forward on what has become a very dangerous flash point for the countries. Indeed, tensions had been slowly building in the East China Sea since the arrest of a Chinese fishing captain following his trawler’s ramming of Japanese coast guard vessels in 2010. The subsequent 2012 purchase of three islands by the government of former Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda prompted more Chinese assertiveness in the maritime space surrounding the disputed isles. Aside from dispatching coast guard and white-hulled commercial vessels, Beijing upped the stakes in the airspace above the islands through its introduction of reconnaissance planes and its unilateral imposition of an Air Defense Identification Zone in the East China Sea last November. Since that time, there have been repeated and sustained intrusions by Chinese ships and aircraft in the area.

With little communication or political dialogue between the countries, both sides have been concerned that an accidental clash around the islands could snowball. For now, things are calmer. Over the past six months, as Japan has been pushing hard to restore diplomatic ties with China, the number of reported intrusions, as outlined by the Japanese coast guard, around the territorial sea of the Senkaku (Diaoyu) Islands has dropped dramatically. For example, there were 188 such incidents in 2013; so far this year, there have been merely 64. Similarly, despite a recent surge in the number of Chinese vessels entering the contiguous zone around the islands—water adjacent to the territorial seas—there has been a relative decline since the previous year. Curiously, Beijing also avoided sending any vessels at all to the contiguous zone during a two-week period last month. 

Government officials on both sides also met in Qingdao this September to agree to resume a working-level dialogue on improving crisis management tools for the dispute. In addition, there was a call to create a hot line for improved communications between both capitals, an idea that the joint statement preceding the summit effectively green-lighted. The resumption of the High-Level Consultation on Maritime Affairs in Qingdao in September is also critical because it involves a wide range of government stakeholders on both sides, including representatives from respective navies, coast guards, and fishery agencies, in addition to diplomatic and defense officials.

There has been some less noticed movement on nonsecurity issues as well, such as the attempt to resuscitate the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, which works on regional issues with South Korea. In September, senior diplomats from all three sides met in Seoul to push forward negotiations for a China-Japan-Korea trilateral free trade agreement. Through the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, China and Japan have also met several times over the past year to discuss key environmental issues, including climate change and combating urban air pollution. The trilateral option, despite adding the problematic Japan-Korea relationship into the mix, would provide a unique vehicle for building cooperation without the political sensitivities associated with bilateral meetings.

The Abe-Xi summit at APEC predictably lacked any pomp or formal deliverables. But the symbolic importance of the meeting should not be underestimated. Breaking the two-year gridlock effectively signals that both governments have granted high-level approval—especially necessary in Beijing’s case—for continuing efforts at the bureaucratic level to slowly repair ties. Yet it would be premature to view the move as a signal of détente between Japan and China, whose relationship is still marred by competing nationalisms, differing strategic visions for the region, and mistrust. Indeed, rather than increasing the chance of a formal summit between Abe and Xi the near future, the APEC meeting might delay it, since China could believe that it has already conceded enough to Japan. In this scenario, too, the incremental repair of bilateral ties would be left to respective diplomats on each side until a major breakthrough, such as a more comprehensive agreed-upon joint statement on the East China Sea, can be found. The coming months will determine how much compromise both sides are willing to accept in order to maintain this little bit of momentum. 

  • J. BERKSHIRE MILLER is Chair of the Japan-Korea Working Group at the Pacific Forum of the Center for Strategic and International Studies and a Fellow on East Asia at the EastWest Institute.
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