On eve of summit, Japan and China pull back from the brink

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, February 22, 2013
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, February 22, 2013 MCT

Easing fears of a looming military conflict, China and Japan jointly announced Friday that they’re seeking to improve relations and set up a system to prevent minor maritime “contingencies” from escalating into true warfare.

“The two sides have agreed to gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogue through various multilateral and bilateral channels and to make efforts to build political mutual trust,” according to joint statements reported by news media in China and Japan.

For the last two years, the two countries have sparred over islands in the East China Sea, elevating concerns that a chance encounter at sea might turn explosive. Friday’s announcement suggests at least a partial thawing of the relationship, three days before China’s President Xi Jinping hosts top Pacific Rim leaders, including President Barack Obama, at a regional summit in Beijing.

It also suggests that, at next week’s summit, Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe might hold their first face-to-face conversation since they assumed power in 2012.

“At this point it looks like there will be a meeting between the two. It may not last long, maybe 15 minutes, but is a big step for this relationship, given where it has been,” said Bonnie Glaser, senior adviser for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a research organization in Washington.

According to China’s version of the announcement, the two countries have “acknowledged that different positions exist between them” about the disputed islands, which Japan calls the Senkuku and China calls the Diaoyu.

This statement is significant, because China has been insisting that Japan acknowledge a dispute exists as a condition for further bilateral talks. Japan has been reluctant to make that acknowledgment, fearing it might open the door to China making a legal claim over territory Japan has long controlled.

In addition, China’s Foreign Ministry posted on its website Friday that the two countries will work on a “mechanism” to prevent maritime incidents from escalating. Talks on creating such a crisis-management system have foundered the last two years, partly because of territorial conflicts and also because of Abe’s decision to visit a controversial war shrine in Tokyo.

China has been insisting that Abe, along with acknowledging that a dispute exists over the islands, pledge to discontinue visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors Japan’s war dead, including 14 former high-ranking officials who were convicted after World War II of crimes against peace for plotting the war. Friday’s statement made no mention of the shrine, leading to speculation that Abe has tacitly agreed not to visit it in the near future but in a way that wouldn’t cause him political repercussions at home.

Friday’s announcement was preceded by several months of back-channel meetings between current and former diplomats of the two countries. The latest came Thursday, when Abe’s special envoy, National Security Adviser Shotaro Yachi, traveled to Beijing to meet with Chinese Vice Premier Yang Jiechi, the government’s senior foreign policy adviser.

Until Friday, few Japan-China watchers had held out hope that any significant breakthrough would come from the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, which started Wednesday in Beijing and features top leaders from 20 countries who arrive Monday.

Narushige Michishita, an Asian security specialist with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo, had said the most he was expecting was a quick meeting between Xi and Abe. “That in itself would have tremendous symbolic impact,” he said in a recent interview with McClatchy.

According to Michishita, both sides can share blame for the rising tensions. In 2012, the Japanese government purchased three of the disputed islands from a private owner. While Japan said the purchase was made to keep the islands out of the hands of an ultranationalist former Japanese governor, China responded with anti-Japanese protests and increasingly bellicose rhetoric and actions against Japan.

A year ago, China declared an air defense zone over much of the East China Sea, including the Senkuku-Diaoyu islands, prompting Japan and the United States to denounce the declaration. Since then, there have been several near-collisions between military aircraft and boats from the three countries, raising fears that a small incident could escalate into full-blown warfare.

If Xi and Abe could be frank about recent mistakes, it would do much to defuse tensions, Michishita and other analysts said. But both leaders must contend with nationalist forces who see negotiations as a sign of weakness.

“If there has been one consistent theme about foreign policy it’s that China will not make concessions,” said Glaser, of the Center for Strategic and International Studies. “Looking soft on Japan is something Xi would not do under any circumstances.”

In Japan on Friday, the national news media debated whether Abe had budged a little by acknowledging that the two countries had territorial differences on the islands.

“The document is vague,” reported the English-language Japan Times. “It does not declare outright that a territorial dispute exists, but the wording may still be strong enough to allow Beijing to save face and argue it has forced Japan to issue an admission.”

China and Japan, Asia’s top economies, are major business partners – with a trade relationship that tops $300 billion yearly – and have centuries of cultural connections. Yet for both, “saving face” often seems to matter more than saving their connections.

“These stupid four or five islands do not matter much as a strategic asset,” Michishita said about the disputed islets. For both sides, he said, they’ve become potent symbols of national pride.