A Meeting of the Minds

Did Japan and China Just Press Reset?

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

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