Fri, Nov 07, 2014 - Page 8 News List

APEC could be key to Abe-Xi links

By Yoon Young-kwan

Given that the 21 members of APEC account for about 54 percent of global GDP and about 44 percent of world trade, the agenda for this month’s APEC summit should draw a lot of global attention. However, the only issue that anyone seems interested in is whether Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet on the sidelines and, if they do, whether a substantive discussion to ease bilateral tensions will take place.

Of course, this is not altogether unreasonable, given the two countries’ importance in shaping East Asia’s future. Indeed, the uncertainty about whether two of APEC’s key leaders will even speak to each other highlights the grim reality of international relations in Asia. The supposed “Asian century” is being thwarted by a paradox: Deep economic interdependence has done nothing to alleviate strategic mistrust.

Given the recent deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations — a decline that accelerated in 2012, when Japan purchased the disputed Senkaku Islands [known in Taiwan as the Diaoyutai Islands (釣魚台列嶼)] from their private owner to prevent Japanese nationalists from taking control of them — the mere fact that Abe will attend the summit is a major step. A meeting between Abe and Xi — their first since either came to power — would offer concrete grounds for hope.

The Japanese government has made significant diplomatic efforts to orchestrate a meeting, with former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda visiting Beijing in July to try to ease tensions. According to some media reports, to secure China’s agreement to participate in a meeting during the APEC summit, Abe even agreed to acknowledge that Japan’s claim to the Senkakus is disputed.

Given that such a move would imply that China’s claim to the islands might have some legitimacy, Abe’s possible concession on this point is no trivial matter; it could even mean that he will agree with China to restore the “status quo” ante.

In that case, one hopes that Xi will follow former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s (鄧小平) counsel and allow the issue to be “shelved for some time” so that the “wiser” next generation can “find a solution acceptable to all.”

That now seems to be a realistic possibility. Indeed, lately Xi seems to have softened his tone, if not necessarily his diplomatic line. For example, he allowed Li Xiaolin (李小琳), the daughter of a former Chinese premier, to meet with Abe, with whom she watched a performance by a visiting Chinese dance troupe in Tokyo. And Chinese Prime Minister Li Keqiang (李克強) shook hands with Abe at a recent Asia-Europe meeting in Milan, Italy.

One reason for Abe and Xi’s newfound flexibility might be domestic political shifts in both countries that have created a more equal balance between conservative, nationalist groups and more internationally oriented business interests. With both leaders having spent the past two years overcoming domestic opponents and consolidating their power, they might have gained confidence in their ability to compromise.

In Japan, Abe has satisfied his conservative supporters with Cabinet resolutions to allow for expanded self defense. Despite domestic opposition to Japan’s new security doctrine, no politically influential group was able to organize an effective challenge to Abe’s approach.

Now, as Japan’s economic recovery stalls, the country’s business sector seems to be pressuring Abe’s government to work harder to mitigate the impact of its deteriorating relationship with China.

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