Ja­pan still has work to do

JoongAng Daily - - Opinion & Perspective -

If shak­ing hands and talk­ing with Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping was all Ja­panese Prime Min­is­ter Shinzo Abe wanted, he got it. Short as it was, the two did talk on Mon­day. The fact that at last and at least the meet­ing hap­pened may mean a lot to many. Ev­ery­one con­cerned about the po­ten­tial dan­gers of a China-Ja­pan stand­off may now be heav­ing a sigh of re­lief. It means a lot to Abe in par­tic­u­lar. He desperately needed it to re­as­sure a sus­pi­cious au­di­ence back home that he has not lost trac­tion yet, at least not com­pletely.

For the meet­ing to hap­pen, Abe re­peat­edly ex­pressed his strong de­sire for it, both per­son­ally and via en­voys, and he toned down his re­marks on sen­si­tive top­ics.

But over­es­ti­mat­ing or over­in­ter­pret­ing their meet­ing will only mis­lead and dis­ap­point.

After all, it was more cer­e­mo­nial than sub­stan­tive.

Pres­i­dent Xi was do­ing the hon­ors as host of the Asia-Pa­cific Eco­nomic Co­op­er­a­tion Eco­nomic Lead­ers’ Meet­ing. Un­pop­u­lar as Abe is here, he is vis­it­ing as the leader of an APEC mem­ber; which means he is a guest of this coun­try and is treated ac­cord­ingly.

Beyond that, the meet­ing was by and large sym­bolic. Nei­ther Xi nor Abe said much that had not been heard be­fore: Abe re­peat­ing his claim that his gov­ern­ment is fully com­mit­ted to restor­ing mu­tu­ally ben­e­fi­cial ties with China; Xi urg­ing Ja­pan to stay true to its words of peace and good-neigh­bor­li­ness.

The meet­ing it­self does not mean there has been a sub­stan­tial thaw in re­la­tions be­tween the two coun­tries. But it was in­dis­pens­able if a real thaw is to ma­te­ri­al­ize.

That said, rhetoric is still rhetoric. Words of good­will alone will hardly make a dif­fer­ence to re­la­tions. Con­sid­er­ing the Abe ad­min­is­tra­tion’s lessthan-glo­ri­ous track record, their com­mit­ment should not be taken for granted and their words need to be matched with cred­i­ble ac­tions.

Both Xi and Abe promised to im­ple­ment the four-point con­sen­sus Beijing and Tokyo reached “in prin­ci­ple” on im­prov­ing ties.

But it re­mains an open ques­tion to what de­gree those prom­ises will be hon­ored on the Ja­panese side. The ob­vi­ous am­bi­gu­ity in word­ing re­gard­ing ter­ri­to­rial dis­putes, for in­stance, means the ri­val claims can­not be eas­ily put on a back burner as op­ti­mistic well-wish­ers an­tic­i­pate.

At the end of the day, the two sides’ loy­alty to their lat­est con­sen­sus will de­ter­mine whether or not there will be the an­tic­i­pated de­frost­ing.

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