Japan still has work to do
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.