Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe are locked in a spiraling diplomatic standoff, but their burgeoning rivalry contrasts with striking personal parallels between the two, analysts say.
While they have emerged through very different systems, one a democracy and the other a one-party state, they are both sons of elite politicians, have suffered serious personal or political setbacks and spout dreamy, patriotic visions for the future.
Similarities in outlook underlie their nationalist and economic agendas, and both are seeking to rejuvenate their countries, the world’s second and third-biggest economies.
“These personality traits and similar historical background, I think they do matter because for both Xi Jinping and Abe, nationalism has been a potent force, which they can exploit to consolidate their position,” said Willy Lam (林和立), a politics expert at the Chinese University of Hong Kong.
Abe’s visit to Tokyo’s controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which honors the country’s war dead after World War II, is the latest spark between the countries after Beijing declared a defense identification zone in airspace over islands claimed by both, but controlled by Tokyo.
Abe and Xi both came to power in late 2012, Xi anointed as Chinese Communist Party general secretary and Abe elected Japanese prime minister after an aborted first term five years earlier.
Xi has pushed what he calls the “Chinese Dream” and has referred to the “great renaissance of the Chinese nation,” vowing to pursue a stronger military, overhaul an outmoded economic growth model and cleanse a ruling party riven with corruption.
Abe was voted in vowing to rejuvenate Japan’s long moribund economy after two so-called “lost decades,” amend its war-renouncing constitution and take a more positive view of Japan’s past with the slogan: “Take back Japan.”
Xi, 60, the “princeling” son of a revolutionary hero, grew up amid the political, economic and social turmoil that consumed Communist China for years, witnessing his father’s jailing in the Cultural Revolution and being “sent down” himself to labor in the countryside.
Despite that complex past, Xi paid homage to Mao Zedong (毛澤東), the founder of the People’s Republic and instigator of much of its anguish, on Dec. 26, the 120th anniversary of his birth — the same day as Abe’s shrine visit.
Abe, 59, is also a political blueblood, son of a foreign minister and grandson of Japan’s wartime industry minister — who was jailed during the US occupation before later serving as prime minister.
China has the world’s largest military and Xi has inspected its first aircraft carrier, while overseeing a double-digit increase in its official defense budget.
Meanwhile Abe, who is looking to boost military spending for the first time in years, has donned a helmet to board a tank and sat in a trainer aircraft emblazoned “731.”
For Chinese, that number evokes a covert Japanese biological and chemical warfare research unit that used Chinese captives for lethal experiments during the 1937 to 1945 Sino-Japanese War.
Katsuhiko Meshino, a senior writer for Japan’s Nikkei newspaper, highlighted how Xi’s visit to Mao’s mausoleum and Abe’s to Yasukuni were both criticized for not accurately facing bygone times.
“Abe and Xi both ignored critical views about certain chapters of their nations’ histories and asserted their own thoughts about the histories,” he wrote.
Looking at their slogans, he added: “It seems that the two leaders are pursuing ghosts of the past instead of charting a new course for their countries.”
So far, the two men’s only encounters as leaders have been a brief meeting on the sidelines of the G20 summit in Russia in September and a handshake at October’s APEC gathering in Indonesia. China says the shrine visit has closed the door on dialogue.
However, both leaders are seeking to revitalize their economies, offering a potential fail-safe against escalating their confrontations too far, analysts say. Unlike after Tokyo nationalized some of the disputed islands in 2012, Abe’s shrine visit has not so far led to attacks on Japanese interests in China, Lam said, adding: “Economic ties are a very strong restraining factor in further deterioration.”
Abe and Xi also face similar challenges, according to David Zweig, a professor at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.
“Power-wise China is in ascendancy, but morally it’s in decline and so that’s why you get this effort by Xi to impose a new morality, a Maoist morality, an anti-corruption morality, a dream-of-greatness morality, a unification morality,” he said.
“Abe is clearly trying to end the 22 years of decline. And the way you do that, he probably figures, is through enhancing nationalism, rewriting the past, giving people a more positive sense of who they are as Japanese, strengthening the military, not being so passive in international affairs,” Zweig added.