The Japanese government has no shortage of issues to worry about, such as sustaining a faltering economic recovery and trying to persuade a skeptical public to accept a return to nuclear power. Even with all that, the country’s leaders are devoting their energy to a seemingly small gesture: a hoped-for handshake.
The gesture has outsized importance because of the two men who would be joining hands: Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平), the tough-minded leaders of Asia’s two biggest economies who have circled each other warily for almost two years.
Japan hopes the greeting — and a possible short meeting afterward — would be the start of repairing relations that have taken a pummeling over disputed islands, as well as disagreements over the handling of Japan’s wartime history.
Illustration: Mountain People
That hope has led to weeks of delicate diplomatic maneuvering, with small gestures parsed for deeper meaning. Japanese officials have begun expressing optimism that the meeting — the first since both men took power — will take place next month on the sidelines of a regional economic summit in Beijing.
Among the promising signs cited by the Japanese side: a recent visit to Tokyo by the daughter of a former Chinese leader who not only met with Abe, but also sat with him to watch a performance by a visiting Chinese dance troupe.
The final negotiations are still under way, so it is difficult to tell if the behind-the-scenes negotiations and emissaries shuttling between China and Japan are about to lead to a breakthrough, as the Japanese officials suggest.
Political analysts in Japan and abroad say both nations appear to share a growing recognition that they have too much to lose, both economically and politically, if they do not find some way to get along.
Both leaders have come under increasing pressure to contain the damage tensions have done to their nations’ large economic ties. The Chinese Ministry of Commerce has reported that Japanese direct investment in China nearly halved in the first six months of the year from the year before. Sales of Japanese cars and other products in China are still down, although exports to the coveted Chinese market have recovered somewhat after a steep drop in the first half of last year that was brought on by the dispute over the Diaoyutais (釣魚台) in the East China Sea, which are also claimed by Taiwan and which Tokyo calls the Senkakus.
Experts say the two leaders are also loath to be seen as the bad guy in the region or in Washington as they battle for influence in Asia.
With neither country willing to yield over the islands, some analysts now speak of a new “status quo,” in which China and Japan essentially agree to disagree while returning to business as usual in other areas.
In that case, analysts said the standoff could become a permanent feature of the security landscape, with both countries continuing to send ships there to make the point that they are in control, while also taking steps to prevent any escalation.
“Japan and China are seeking a new equilibrium,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “The best we can do now is to keep playing this game, but at a lower level, and to find ways to be less confrontational.”
Since Abe took office in December 2012, Xi has refused to meet the Japanese leader, an outspoken nationalist whom many in China suspect wants to deny World War II atrocities committed by invading Japanese troops. As a precondition for more substantial talks, some Chinese officials have suggested that Abe show sincerity by promising not to continue visiting Yasukuni, a Tokyo shrine to Japan’s war dead, as well as 30,304 Taiwanese soldiers and 1,068 Japanese war criminals, that many Chinese see as a symbol of Tokyo’s lack of repentance.
On Friday, China protested after Abe sent an offering of a potted plant to Yasukuni to mark an autumn festival, though Japanese officials had said they felt the offering would not affect the negotiations as Abe did not go in person.
However, the biggest sticking point in the negotiations over a meet-and-greet has been how to handle the tense, two-year standoff over the Diaoyutais. The countries have been locked in an almost Cold War-style face-off since the purchase of the islands by Abe’s predecessor, former Japanese prime minister Yoshihiko Noda, in mid-2012, a move the government said was intended to prevent them from falling under the control of Japanese ultra-nationalists.
Outraged by what it saw as a unilateral move to increase Japanese control over the islands, China began dispatching paramilitary ships to waters near the uninhabited islands and declared an air-defense zone above them, setting off an international uproar when it demanded all aircraft entering the area submit flight plans to Chinese authorities.
For his part, Abe has refused to back down, expanding the flotilla of Japanese coast guard ships that chase the Chinese vessels in games of cat-and-mouse near the islands. Japan has also stepped up its patrols in China’s air-defense zone, a snub that provoked some close encounters between Japanese planes and Chinese fighter jets.
Beijing has been demanding that Tokyo recognize that the islands are in dispute, something the latter has so far refused to do for fear of opening the door to further concessions.
On Friday, the coveted handshake between Abe and Xi seemed to move a step closer to reality as Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported that Abe had shaken hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang (李克強) at a dinner for Asian and European leaders in Milan, Italy. Furthermore, last weekend, a top Japanese diplomat visited Beijing in what Japanese media said was a trip aimed at negotiating the Abe-Xi handshake.
The diplomatic efforts to bring the two leaders together began in July, when former Japanese prime minister Yasuo Fukuda was allowed to meet Xi. Fukuda handed the Chinese leader a letter from Abe and was the first to propose a meeting between Abe and Xi during the coming APEC meeting.
“A month ago, I would have told you a meeting was not likely,” a high-level Japanese official said on condition of anonymity. “Now, I’d say both countries have come around to seeing it as in their interests.”
Chinese analyst Wu Xinbo (吳新保), executive dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, was more equivocal.
“If we see Abe is serious about improving relations with China and taking a more serious and responsible attitude toward the history issue, then that will lead to an improvement in bilateral relations,” Wu said.
Bree Feng contributed research from Beijing
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