Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s long-sought meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) was to herald a fresh start to soured relations, but their body language told a different story.
The two looked uncomfortable as they shook hands at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing before heading into a 25-minute discussion. The leaders of Asia’s two biggest economies weighed each other up with stern faces, barely making eye contact after a two-and-a-half-year hiatus in formal top-level meetings caused by disputes over territory and Japan’s wartime past.
While Abe later told reporters that the two had talked of greater cooperation and said it was the first step toward improving ties, China’s Xinhua news agency said that Xi had granted the meeting at Japan’s request.
The frigid atmosphere captured in photographs in China’s state-owned media was in stark contrast to those depicting a smiling reunion between Xi and South Korean President Park Geun-hye.
“The pictures and stories in official media are well-chosen,” said Qiao Mu (喬木), an international communications professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University. “The authorities did that to appeal to domestic nationalist sentiment and to tell the public that their president is tough enough on Japan.”
During the meeting, Abe praised Xi’s leadership of the Chinese economy and told him that Japan saw China’s peaceful rise as an opportunity, Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato told reporters in Beijing.
Xi urged Japan to do more to enhance mutual trust and play a constructive role in safeguarding the region’s peace and stability, Xinhua reported.
Xi’s expression softened when Abe told him about attending a performance of Chinese ballet in Tokyo last month, Kato said. Xinhua did not report the remark and gave greater prominence on its Web site to a picture of Xi meeting the leader of Papua New Guinea — with its population of 7.3 million.
“I saw the images,” Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in Tokyo after the greeting was broadcast. “What should they have done? What is important is that they have overcome various problems and brought about a leaders’ meeting.”
The talks are a nod toward pragmatism, even if it did look like a reluctant reconciliation, said Jeff Kingston, director of Asian Studies at Temple University in Tokyo.
“I think that their lemony look signals that there are tough challenges ahead in trying to renormalize relations,” he said. “[However,] it seems they have both come to the conclusion that bilateral relations are too important to hold hostage to a lesser issue.”
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