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Asia

Xi-Abe meeting was 'an inch, not a step, forward'

For the first time since taking office, China's President Xi Jinping held direct talks with Japan's PM Shinzo Abe. The meeting on the sidelines of an APEC summit signals easing tensions, says analyst Kristin Surak.

The two leaders met on Monday, November 10 on the sidelines of an APEC (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation) gathering in Beijing. Experts regard the tete-a-tete meeting as one of great significance as the leaders of the world's second and third-biggest economies hadn't met during their time in power.

Just days before the meeting, China's Foreign Ministry said the two sides had agreed to "gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogues." Moreover, the two neighbors acknowledged they had different positions regarding the tensions over the uninhabited Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and "some waters" in the East China Sea.

The talks come at a time when nationalism, regional rivalries and territorial disputes have worsened bilateral ties over the past two years. Questions have been raised, however, as to what Abe may have offered the Chinese to secure the meeting. According to media reports, China had reportedly been demanding that PM Abe swear not to repeat a visit to a Tokyo shrine that honors fallen soldiers, including a number of war criminals.

Kristin Surak

Surak: 'The meeting was enough to dissipate worries that continued tensions between Japan and China would mar the summit'

In a DW interview, Kristin Surak, a senior lecturer of Japanese Politics at SOAS, University of London, says that the Xi-Abe meeting was an inch, not a step, forward, and that the dispute over the islands remains a stumbling point for Sino-Japanese ties.

DW: How would you describe the Xi-Abe meeting? How significant was it for both countries?

The meeting is a cautious move towards improving bilateral ties between China and Japan, which have been at their worst in years. Even a few days before APEC, it was unclear whether the leaders would meet at all. Thus, the meeting shows less how far both countries have come than the extent to which their relationship has deteriorated under two nationalist rulers.

The meeting was an inch, not a step, forward. At a mere 25 minutes, it was brief, reluctant, and without smiles – but that was enough to dissipate worries that continued tensions between the countries would mar the summit. And it marks the first time that the two key leaders in the region have met since assuming office two years ago. Abe has been calling for a summit for some time, and behind-the-scenes negotiations have been intense for the past several weeks, but it was only on Friday that this looked possible after Japan agreed to resume regional security talks that had been on ice for two years.

What were the top issues discussed?

Abe reported to the Japanese media that he discussed the creation of a hotline to prevent armed fighting over the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. The People's Daily reported that Xi urged Japan to remain committed to the four-point agreement released on Friday.

China's top diplomat Yang Jiechi and Japanese National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi agreed to a four-point agreement (SCMP) that acknowledged the existence of a dispute over islands in the East China Sea and called on both sides to gradually resume political, diplomatic, and security dialogue to improve relations. What does this agreement entail and how is it likely to impact bilateral ties?

The accord shows the interest between the foreign ministries of both countries to reduce tensions. In the carefully-worded document, the countries agreed to continue to develop a mutually-beneficial relationship based on common interests and to build a relationship based on shared trust.

That even such basic practices had to be reaffirmed indicates just how deep the rift between the two has been. They recognized the need to follow the "spirit of squarely facing history" while going forward – wording that suggests Abe should exercise caution over visits to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine. They also recognized "differing views" on the disputed islands and agreed to prevent the situation from deteriorating further.

In practical terms, the meeting on Friday, November 7, was more productive than the one between the heads of state as it opened up path for further dialogue. The cautious vagueness of the statements allows both leaders to place a positive spin on the document for domestic audiences.

What are some of the key issues affecting bilateral ties?

The dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands has been the key stumbling point for bilateral ties since both men took office. The islands had been shelved for years, but the issue heated up in September 2012 when Shintaro Ishihara, then governor of Tokyo, attempted to purchase the uninhabited islands. To block his move, the Japanese government bought three of the disputed islands first. China has responded by routinely entering the islands' waters, raising the threat of confrontation, and both countries have rallied aircraft for defense of the islands and invoked the possibility of drawing the US into the conflict.

As the island conflict began to cool, Abe rekindled tensions by visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine, which houses the souls of Japanese war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. Abe's last visit in December 2013 sparked outrage in China. Though he has sent only offerings this year, Abe is likely to visit the Shrine in the next, which marks the 70th anniversary of the end of WWII. For his part, Xi has repeatedly railed against a "militarist" Japan in public speeches and stoked anti-Japanese sentiments.

Raising the stakes are double-digit growth in Chinese military spending and gradual normalization of Japanese self-defense forces. Yet, the fiery nationalism that has channeled bilateral relations in recent years has had economic costs, and both countries recognize the benefits of enhancing their business ties, especially as the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations gradually taper to a close.

Are there any plans to come to an agreement over some of these issues? Why?

China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, in Beijing November 10, 2014 (Poto: REUTERS/Kim Kyung-Hoon)

Surak: 'Both leaders want to see economic ties strengthened'

At present, China and Japan have agreed to disagree about the islands – a strategy that keeps tensions from escalating while assuaging domestic populations. China had hoped that Japan would concede that there was indeed a dispute, which could open legal means for settling the conflict. Japan has held firm to its claim over the islands as an integral part of its territory, but recognized on Friday that the two sides hold "differing views" – phrasing that offers some constructive ambiguity to the Chinese. It's unlikely, though, that China will receive a promise from Abe not to visit Yasukuni.

What mechanisms have the two countries set up to continue dialogue and de-escalating tensions?

Clear mechanisms have not yet been built. With this first, important meeting behind them, now it is critical for both sides to rebuild standard diplomatic mode of negotiation.

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

Both leaders want to see economic ties strengthened – Japanese investment in China has been declining, and China wants to rebalance its manufacturing-heavy economy. The question is whether nationalist provocations will continue to trump business concerns. Given the rock-bottom levels that have prevailed over the past two years, communication between the two governments is likely to pick up. Yet, it remains to be seen how much both countries will be able to make of this opportunity. With the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II around the corner – an event sure to stoke further nationalist provocations – the current window to improve relations is an important one to maximize.

A final question mark lies over Russia. Both countries have been trying to work out the bumps in the relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin and gain energy sources from their neighbor to the north. China has secured a favorable natural gas deal and Japan is looking towards an underwater pipeline between Sakhalin and Hokkaido that could supply one-fifth of its natural gas needs. If Russia continues to develop its ties in East Asia, it could become a import third player in the region that could draw away the focus – and pressure – on bilateral relations.

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