Frosty China, Japan leaders’ first meeting
BEIJING — The meeting between President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan lasted only 25 minutes, less than half the time usually given to formal encounters between the leaders of two nations.
The names of the tiny islands in the East China Sea that are at the core of their frosty relationship did not pass their lips.
The two leaders tried a new beginning on Monday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, but the atmosphere could hardly have been cooler.
Their countries’ flags, often the backdrop for such diplomatic meetings, were conspicuously absent, lest they convey an impression of amity.
And the body language? At the outset of the meeting, before they were seated, Mrabe spoke to Mr Xi.
The cameras caught the Chinese leader listening but not answering, turning instead for the photographers to snap an awkward, less than enthusiastic handshake.
“Obviously Mr Xi did not want to create a warm or courteous atmosphere,” said Kazuhiko Togo, director of the Institute for World Affairs at Kyoto Sangyo University. “It was a very delicate balancing act for Xi.”
If the Chinese leader smiled too much, he would antagonise the nationalistic audience at home, which has been led for more than two years to believe that Mr Abe is not worth meeting, Mr Togo said. If he glared, he would sour world opinion.
The long-awaited encounter came three days after the two countries agreed to a formal document in which they recognised their differing positions on the East China Sea, including on the waters around the islands known as the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan.
The two sides said that “following the spirit of squaring history” — an oblique reference to Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of China during World War II — they would seek to overcome the problems in the relationship.
The meeting on Monday was not intended to deliver any substantive progress on territorial and historical issues that have brought the two richest countries in Asia close to conflict and inflamed nationalist sentiments, officials from both sides said.
But Mr Abe, who appears to have done most of the talking during the limited time given, asked for the early installation of a hotline that could help defuse possible clashes between Chinese and Japanese vessels in waters around the islands, said Kuni Sato, the press secretary for the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
In general, Ms Sato said, Mr Abe told Mr Xi that China and Japan should explore a relationship that was based on strong economic cooperation, better relations in the East China Sea and stability in East Asia.
Mr Abe talked about the need to curb Ebola, and about cooperation on dealing with North Korea. He also squeezed in, as an example of cultural exchange, a mention of his attendance last month at a Chinese ballet company’s performance in Tokyo, according to Ms Sato.
Mr Xi had refused to consider a face-to-face meeting since becoming president in March 2013, but Mr Abe, who was elected at the end of 2012, publicly requested the encounter in the past few months. Japanese diplomats were sent to Beijing to arrange the meeting and to complete the accord released on Friday, which was intended as a basis for better relations.
The Chinese, as hosts of the Asia-pacific Economic Cooperation forum that opened on Monday, realised they could not snub Mr Abe during the summit meeting, and they agreed to the encounter, Chinese officials said. President Obama arrived in Beijing for the forum on Monday morning.
That Mr Xi and Mr Abe met gives a “kick-off” to what could be an exceedingly long process of discussions over the future of the uninhabited islands, and over the disagreements over Japanese repentance for atrocities in China during the war, said Yang Xiyu, a senior fellow at the China Institute of International Studies and a former Chinese diplomat.
“The gaps between the two sides are too big to handle, let alone narrow,” in such a meeting between the two leaders, Mryang said.
Since taking control of the islands from the United States in 1972, Japan has consistently refused to concede that there is any dispute over sovereignty.
China says the islands were taken from it by Japan at the end of the 19th century.
On the question of what China sees as Japan’s lack of repentance for its occupation of China, Mr Togo of Kyoto Sangyo University said it would be impossible for Mr Abe to announce publicly that he would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine, a site in central Tokyo that honours the nation’s war dead, including convicted war criminals. Such a pledge would antagonise his conservative political base.
“Abe cannot say he will not go, but it doesn’t mean he will go,” Mr Togo said.
Some Japanese analysts said they believed that Mr Abe’s visit to the shrine in December of last year was sufficient to satisfy his domestic constituency, allowing the prime minister to focus on developing a modicum of a working relationship with China.
Even though the four-point document agreed to by both countries appeared to be evenly balanced to give each side “face,” the Chinese government got the upper hand, said Ren Xiao of Fudan University in Shanghai.
Japan contends that there is no dispute over the islands, and that it maintains total control of them. But the four-point accord’s declaration that there were different positions over the islands “fulfilled China’s requirement,” he said.
That was a sufficient concession that there was a conflict over the islands, he said. —
Prime minister Shinzo Abe of Japan (left) and China’s president, Xi Jinping, shook hands during a meeting in Beijing on monday.