Frosty Meeting Between Xi and Abe Aims To Break Ice

Last week, ahead of the meetings in Beijing, the Chinese and Japanese governments issued a joint agreement in which they appeared to agree to disagree over the ongoing dispute over the Diaoyu (Senkaku) Islands. Even without specifically raising the issue of sovereignty or offering any specifics about how the countries would resolve the persistent dispute, the agreement itself represents a step forward in the bilateral relationship. It also set the groundwork for the first meeting between Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and President Xi Jinping in Beijing on the sidelines of the APEC meetings. Chun Han Wong and Yuka Hayashi report for the Wall Street Journal:

Friday’s agreement, negotiated by Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi and Japanese National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi at a Chinese government guesthouse, doesn’t address these larger dynamics. But the agreement was crafted to allow the two countries to take a step forward, while leaving room for interpretations that won’t upset their domestic audiences, analysts said.

“The consensus on principles has opened a window of opportunity for Sino-Japanese ties to improve,” said Yang Bojiang, a professor and Japan expert at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences. “But the discord between China and Japan is complex and longstanding, and can’t be easily resolved.”

The two sides agreed to overcome political obstacles in the spirit of “facing history squarely and looking forward to the future”—a reference to the lingering ill will over wartime depredations. Crucially, the agreement acknowledged the countries’ different positions regarding the tensions in the East China Sea. [Source]

For the New York Times, Jane Perlez reports that the agreement was the outcome of intensive negotiations between the two sides, and that it is carefully worded so neither side would be seen to have ceded their position in the standoff:

The tone of the accord showed that China was able to maneuver to prevent mention of Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the islands, said Zhang Baohui, director of the Center for Asian Pacific Studies at Lingnan University in Hong Kong.

Two weeks ago, he said, the Japanese reported that the behind-the-scenes negotiations would lead to a statement that would recognize Japan’s sovereignty but would also say that Japan was aware of China’s position.

“That the statement doesn’t say Japan has sovereignty is a diplomatic victory for China and allows the Xi-Abe meeting to happen in the next few days,” Mr. Zhang said.

[…] China has long demanded that Japan formally acknowledge the existence of a dispute over the sovereignty of the islands, and Japan has long refused, worried that doing so would strengthen Beijing’s position. The careful wording of Friday’s statements appeared intended to enable each side to say it had not backed down and to claim a diplomatic victory. [Source]

However, there remains some dispute over whether the issue of sovereignty was intentionally left out or if it was not part of the negotiations. While both sides released English versions of the agreement, they couldn’t agree on the wording and so issued separate translations. From Yuka Hayashi for the Wall Street Journal:

The different word choices didn’t occur by chance. China’s position has been that Japan must recognize the existence of a dispute over the sovereignty of the islands that the Chinese call Diaoyu, the disagreement at the heart of the most recent episode of frosty relations. Japan has refused to do so, saying its sovereignty over the islands that it calls Senkaku is indisputable.

Japanese officials say that the sovereignty issue wasn’t covered by the latest statement. In their understanding, the “tense situation” meant China’s aggressive patrolling in the area’s water and skies and its unilateral establishment of an air defense zone over the islands last year.

On wartime history, China said the two sides “reached some agreement” to overcome “political obstacles” in the bilateral relations. Japan stated it and Beijing “shared some recognition” that they will overcome “political difficulties.” The scope is described as “some” in the English translations of both statements.

Abe and Xi also met face-to-face for the first time in Beijing, though only briefly. In the public photo ops, Xi Jinping appeared to be trying to placate his domestic audience, who generally would not appreciate Xi showing too much warmth toward Abe. Indeed, the meeting was noted for its iciness. As Josh Chin and Jun Hongo write for the Wall Street Journal’s China Real Time blog, “the encounter was a tad on the chilly side, with Mr. Xi apparently refusing to return his counterpart’s greeting and looking throughout the photo op as if he’d rather be shaking hands with one of the goats that are said to be stripping the aforementioned disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands of their scant vegetation”:

Leika Kihara and Sui-Lee Wee report on the meeting for Reuters:

Gerry Curtis, a Columbia University professor, said Xi’s apparent stiffness in greeting Abe was a nod to his domestic audience, which still harbours memories of Japan’s brutal wartime occupation.

“Xi had to be concerned about how the meeting was covered in China,” he said. “Looking like he was meeting his best friend would probably not go down all that well.”

But Curtis also said body language aside, the meeting was an “important and positive development” towards repairing ties. [Source]

The two men also met behind closed doors for 25 minutes, much shorter than the usual meetings between heads of state. Journalists were not allowed to attend, but it is reported that little of substance was discussed or decided, although both sides acknowledged a willingness to improve relations. From Asahi Shimbun:

According to the Japanese government, Abe told Xi, “Though there are individual problems between Japan and China, we should prevent those problems from damaging overall (bilateral) relations.

“Using this meeting as a good opportunity, I want to make efforts to improve Japan-China relations along with President Xi.”

Abe called for cooperation in the following four points–promotion of mutual understanding between the peoples of the two countries; deepening of economic relations; cooperation in the East China Sea; and stability of the security environment in East Asia.

Abe and Xi confirmed that they will develop Japan-China relations based on “strategic mutual-beneficial relations.” Keeping the tense situation around the Senkaku Islands in Okinawa Prefecture in mind, the two leaders agreed to hold working-level negotiations on the start of operations of a “maritime liaison mechanism” between defense authorities in order to prevent an accidental collision on the seas. [Source]

And from Xinhua:

To build stable and healthy bilateral relations, Xi said, China and Japan must conform to the progressive trend of the times.

He urged Japan to “do more things that help enhance the mutual trust between Japan and its neighboring countries, and play a constructive role in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability.”

“Severe difficulties have emerged in Sino-Japanese relations in recent two years and the rights and wrongs behind them are crystal clear,” Xi said.

He noted that both sides have reached a four-point agreement to improve bilateral ties, and expressed hope that the Japanese side would properly handle related issues in line with the agreement. [Source]

On Twitter, the body language between the two men was a hot topic of discussion:

Commenters also noted the contrast between Xi’s expression when meeting with Abe and with South Korean President Park Geun-hye:

Meanwhile, Elizabeth Economy of the Council for Foreign Relations issued a list of suggested readings for Abe and Xi before their meeting. In the Sydney Morning Herald, John Garnaut reports that a visit to China by a young, pacificist Japanese MP may have helped pave the way for the meeting between Xi and Abe.

November 10, 2014 8:57 PM
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