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Asia

Xi-Abe meeting likely to deflate tensions

The leaders of China and Japan have held talks on the sidelines of the Asia-Africa Summit - a step that signals a thaw in the historically frosty ties between Asia's two largest economies, analyst Kristin Surak tells DW.

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping held talks on Wednesday, April 22, for the second time since taking office, in a bid to repair bilateral ties. The leaders of Asia's two largest economies met on the sidelines of the summit in the Indonesian capital Jakarta for about 30 minutes, and agreed to work on improving ties between the two countries, Jiji news agency quoted the Japanese leader as saying.

After the meeting with Xi, Abe also said the two leaders agreed to contribute to regional stability and prosperity by promoting "mutually beneficial strategic ties," Jiji reported. Kyodo news agency also said Abe urged Xi to work together to ease tensions in the East China Sea.

The meeting came just hours after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe expressed "deep remorse" for Japan's World War II aggression at the summit, but stopped short of repeating previous apologies. The leaders had met before but had never had a formal sit-down. Rising tensions have overshadowed Sino-Japanese ties in recent years with the Asian neighbors rowing over the ownership of an East China Sea island chain, visits by Japanese politicians to a Tokyo war shrine and their wartime past.

Kristin Surak

Surak: 'The meeting was an important one for both countries at this time, given the tensions that have built up in the region'

In a DW interview, Kristin Surak, a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London, talks about how the meeting will likely impact Sino-Japanese ties and says that although many key issues remain unresolved, the recent meeting showed just how important it is for the two leaders to maintain strong trade ties.

DW: How significant was this meeting between the two leaders?

Kristin Surak: The meeting was an important one for both countries at this time, given the tensions that have built up in the region since both men assumed power. Abe and Xi have met only twice, in addition to two much briefer encounters.

Moreover, relations between Japan and China have become distant under the leadership of Xi and Abe. Recently, Japan declined to join China's popular Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), and it is now preparing to close the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) with the United States, which includes other Asian nations, but notably not China.

While the dispute over the Daioyu/Senkaku islands has not flared up in recent months, neither has it been resolved. Most important for the leaders, though, is maintaining their strong trade ties, which have largely returned to normal following clashes over the islands two years ago.

Why did it take so long for the two leaders to finally meet?

As Prime Minister, Abe has actively cultivated diplomatic ties on as many fronts as possible - a scattershot "panoramic perspective" as the Ministry of Foreign Affairs terms the strategy.

However, relations with China under his rule have been chilly. Abe and Xi met on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Beijing last November, yielding images of an uncomfortable handshake between the two men. In Jakarta, Abe sought out Xi after months of work behind the scenes, and the two leaders appeared more at ease with each other than last year.

Though the public rapport of the two countries has gone through rough spots, the backstage relationship has been better. Both leaders realize that the economies gain from cooperation. Yet the stakes are greater for Japan as China continues to post higher levels of economic and military growth.

However, the meeting was partly overshadowed by the PM Abe's decision not to apologize for Japan's aggression during WWII. Is that all China and South Korea should expect?

In Jakarta, Abe declared "deep remorse over the past war," and as Prime Minister, he has reaffirmed the apologies that Japan has issued in the past for its acts of aggression in WWII.

Asien-Afrika Gipfel in Jakarta

'Both leaders realize that the economies gain from cooperation,' said Surak

These include the 1995 statement issued by Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama that offered Japan's "deep remorse" and "heartfelt apology" for "colonial rule and aggression" as well as "tremendous damage and suffering" it brought to its Asian neighbors.

Many consider Abe's Jakarta statement to be a test-run of what he may offer on August 15, the date of Japanese surrender, which is likely to provide a much milder assessment of Japanese wartime atrocities.

Signals indicate that he will not issue a new apology on the 70th anniversary of Japan's capitulation, nor is he likely to recognize Japan's aggression in words as clear and strong as those in the Murayama Statement - now considered the "minimum standard" by China, South Korea, and the US. Abe will have another opportunity for feedback on potential phrasing when he addresses the US Congress at the end of this month.

How do you expect bilateral ties to develop in the coming months?

Ideally, the meeting will deflate some of tension between the two countries. Both Xi and Abe have strong agendas and are quick to play the nationalist card. China continues to forward its claims on islands and reefs in disputes not only with Japan, but also its Southeast Asian neighbors.

Symbolbild - Inselgruppe Senkaku/ Diaoyu-Inseln

Surak: 'While the dispute over the Daioyu/Senkaku islands has not flared up in recent months, neither has it been resolved'

For his part, Abe will likely proceed with his expansion of Japan's "Self Defense Forces" and push for a revision of Article 9 of the Constitution that renounces Japan's right to war to build up a full-fledged army.

To shore up its position, Japan is tightening its relationship with the US. Abe is poised to override mass citizen protest against the relocation and expansion of a US airbase in Okinawa, and of the prosperous countries, only the US and Japan are refraining from membership in China's AIIB. Side meetings of the sort that occurred in Jakarta may help release some of the pressure that will build as both countries pursue these agendas.

Kristin Surak is a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London. She specializes in international migration, nationalism, culture, and globalization.