The Chinese have a diplomatic tradition of “drawing from strength to offset weakness” (qu chang bu duan). The tradition was on display recently when China’s President Xi Jinping met with Japan’s Prime Minister Abe Shinzo in Beijing. By all accounts it was a somewhat frosty meeting, lasting less than a half hour. Official photos showed two unsmiling leaders shaking hands while not looking at one another. Students of body language will have a field day with those photos. Yet the very fact that Abe and Xi met at all is news, since for some time China had rejected a high-level get-together until Japan changed its position on the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands by acknowledging that a dispute existed. Japan essentially did so in a roundabout way; and since Beijing was hosting the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, it would have been unseemly for Xi not to greet Abe.
Quiet diplomacy between foreign ministries preceded the Abe-Xi encounter.The result was a four-point agreement that reflected “drawing from strength”—in that Chinese and Japanese leaders understand the economic and political importance of their relationship—and “offsetting weakness,” namely, Japan’s historical burden when dealing with China, and China’s very assertive actions in the East Sea and South China Sea that have harmed relations with its neighbors. The agreement said: (1) both countries will continue efforts at “mutually beneficial strategic relations,” with due regard for prior agreements; (2) both will seek to “overcome political obstacles” to their relations, relying on the spirit of “due regard for history, and looking to the future;” (3) both recognize that the East China Sea dispute resides in “different viewpoints,” and agree to consultations to establish a mechanism for avoiding worsening the situation; (4) both sides will use various channels of dialogue to promote mutual confidence (http://world.people.com.cn/n/2014/1107/c1002-25993302.html).
After the meeting, Abe was upbeat, characterizing the talks as a “big step forward” in their diplomacy. He pointed out that Japan and China “need each other” and are “inseparably bound together.” And he said a “maritime communication channel”—a hotline, in short—had been decided on to help prevent a clash in the East China Sea. The Chinese press and Chinese officials have been much less effusive about the new agreement or confident that Japan will fulfill it. As has happened in the aftermath of past tensions, Chinese sources have blamed Japan for them, reminded Japan of its wartime aggression, and said moving in a peaceful direction depended on Japan rectifying its behavior. For example, Foreign Minister Wang Yi said that while China “respects” Japan’s desire for improved relations, China “hopes that Japan will seriously regard, fully respect, and faithfully implement” the four-point agreement (http://world.people.com.cn/n/2014/1108/c1002-25996194.html).
Likewise, when two of the countries’ top foreign-policy specialists—one from China’s state council, the other representing Japan’s national security council—met in Beijing, a Chinese report again put the burden on Japan to fulfill the terms of the four-point agreement. “It is well recognized that the four-point agreement all depends on the implementation,” said the news report (http://japan.people.com.cn/n/2014/1108/c35469-25994839.html).
In short, we shouldn’t be ready to celebrate just yet a new era in Sino-Japanese relations. Nevertheless, we should applaud the very fact that the two leaders finally met, that Japan acknowledged the existence of a territorial dispute, and that a confidence-building mechanism will be set up to avoid a clash at sea. This last item is particularly noteworthy in that President Barack Obama and President Xi also reached agreement during the APEC conference on creating a code of conduct to avoid a naval confrontation. At this stage of Northeast Asia international relations, with multiple sources of tension, any arrangements that promote dialogue are welcome.
(This post originally appeared in the Global Asia Forum, http://www.globalasia.org/Forum/Detail/58/the-abe-xi-mini-summit-a-positive-moment.html.)