Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will know by early next week if he’s managed to pull off one of the most important meetings since taking power two years ago.
The leaders of Japan and China -- the world’s second- and third-largest economies -- haven’t had a summit during their time in office, with ties overshadowed by friction over history and territory. Now, as Chinese President Xi Jinping prepares to host Asia-Pacific leaders including U.S. President Barack Obama in Beijing, Abe is pressing his case to begin a rapprochement.
With China urging Japan to face up to its militarist past, a formal meeting might bolster Abe as he tries to cool tensions over disputed islands in the East China Sea. By granting a full audience on his home turf, Xi would appear statesmanlike as he seeks great power status to match the U.S. in Asia, failure to do so may leave ties as frayed as they were when the two men had a brief exchange in September last year.
“It would be a great step forward if the leaders of the two major Asian powers could have a meeting to resolve the long stand-off,” said Liang Yunxiang, a professor of Japanese studies at Peking University. “They also need to be aware that their meeting might inflame sentiments at home.”
China will be the 50th country Japan’s most globe-trotting prime minister has visited since taking office. Abe has repeatedly said he would welcome a first summit with Xi at the two-day Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting that starts on Nov. 10. No such meeting has been arranged yet, Japanese Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga told reporters in Tokyo yesterday.
Japan’s purchase in September 2012 of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea sparked demonstrations in China. Ships and planes from both countries frequently tail one another around the disputed area, raising the potential for an accident. While trade has recovered and Chinese tourists are flocking to Japan, Japanese investment in China slumped by half in the first half of 2014 and surveys show animosity among the public in both nations.
Xi Jinping, China's president.
About 93 percent of Japanese have an unfavorable impression of China, up 3 percentage points from last year, according to a poll published by policy research group Genron NPO in September. That’s more than the 87 percent of Chinese who said they had an unfavorable impression of Japan.
Japanese respondents cited Chinese criticism of their nation’s history, and failure to comply with international rules as reasons for their aversion. Such feelings have been inflamed again by Chinese fishermen poaching red coral from around a separate group of remote Japanese islands in recent weeks.
Almost 60 percent of Chinese respondents cited Japan’s perceived lack of remorse over its past invasions of China as a reason for their unfavorable impression. In December last year, Abe sparked anger from China and South Korea when he visited Tokyo’s Yasukuni Shrine, which is seen by many people in Asia as a symbol of Japan’s past aggression.
“The two parties have already begun to temper their diplomatic rhetoric to calm domestic pressures,” said Lian Degui, deputy director of the Japanese Studies Center at the Shanghai Institutes for International Studies. “A meeting wouldn’t provoke public outrage as long as the two countries issue a carefully worded statement at the end.”
Some progress has been made toward bolstering ties. In October, former prime minister Yasuo Fukuda meet Xi for the second time recent months in China, and Abe shook hands with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in Milan last month. Abe’s top security official, Shotaro Yachi, met counterparts in Beijing yesterday.
“The gap is narrowing,” Suga told reporters in Tokyo on Nov. 5.
Japan’s trade with China grew 4.4 percent to $168.4 billion in the first half of 2014, compared with a 10.8 percent decline in the same period of last year, according to the Japan External Trade Organization. The number of Chinese visitors to Japan rose to 1.79 million for January-September, up almost 80 percent on the same period in 2013, according to the Japan National Tourism Organization.
Even so, Japanese investment into China slumped by almost half in the first six months of 2014, according to a July report from China’s Ministry of Commerce.
The proposed summit is most important for Chinese businessmen, said Kunihiko Miyake, a visiting professor at Ritsumeikan University in Kyoto and former official at the Japanese embassy in Beijing. “If you don’t send the right signal to Chinese and Japanese business circles that it’s still O.K. to invest in China, Japanese companies will continue to leave,” he said.
A meeting between the leaders might help kick-start talks on a maritime communication mechanism aimed at avoiding unexpected incidents in the East China Sea, where the disputed islands known as Senkaku in Japan and Diaoyu in China, are located.
“Creating momentum is probably the biggest result they could achieve,” said Ken Jimbo, an associate professor in the policy management faculty at Keio University near Tokyo.
Japanese officials have made a three-point proposal to China in an effort to secure a summit, the Mainichi newspaper said in October, citing several unidentified government sources. At any meeting, Abe would agree to say that although disputed islands in the East China Sea were Japanese territory, he was aware China had its own assertions and the two sides would hold talks to resolve the issue, the newspaper said.
“If they were to hold concrete talks, China could be exposed to criticism for bending its principles to meet with Abe,” said Jimbo. “So avoiding any concrete content is one way of resolving this.”