comscore Analysis: A new effort to improve Asia relations

Analysis: A new effort to improve Asia relations

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BEIJING >> The meeting lasted just 25 minutes, less than half the time usually given to formal encounters between heads of government. Their national flags, often the backdrop for such meetings, were conspicuously absent. Neither man so much as mentioned the tiny islands in the East China Sea that are a major point of friction between their countries.

President Xi Jinping of China and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan tried a new beginning on Monday at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, but the atmosphere could hardly have been cooler.

And the body language? At the outset, before they were seated, Abe spoke to Xi. Cameras caught the Chinese leader listening, but not answering — instead, he turned toward 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 antagonize the nationalistic audience at home, which has been told for more than two years that Abe was not worth meeting, Togo said. On the other hand, if he glared at Abe, Xi would sour world opinion.

Soon after the meeting, the Chinese state-run news media released a photograph of Xi and Abe looking at the floor as they shook hands, an image that made both leaders seem grumpy. (In Japan, by contrast, the most widely used photo of the handshake showed the two men looking at each other and smiling slightly.)

The encounter came three days after the two countries agreed to a formal document in which they recognized their differing positions on the East China Sea, including the waters around the cluster of disputed islands known in China as the Diaoyu and in Japan as the Senkaku.

The two sides said in announcing the agreement that in the spirit of "facing history squarely" — an oblique reference to Japan’s brutal occupation of parts of China during World War II — they would seek to overcome the problems in their relationship.

The meeting Monday was not intended to deliver any substantive progress on territorial and historical issues that have inflamed nationalist sentiments and brought China and Japan, the two richest countries in Asia, close to conflict, officials from both sides said.

But Abe, who appeared to have done most of the talking in the meeting, 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, Sato said, Abe told 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.

Abe talked about the need to curb Ebola and about cooperation on dealing with North Korea. He also squeezed in a mention of his attendance last month at a Chinese ballet company’s performance in Tokyo, according to Sato.

Xi, who became president in March 2013, repeatedly refused to consider meeting Abe face to face, but Abe, who was elected at the end of 2012, went public with his request in recent months.

As hosts of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum that opened Monday, the Chinese realized they could not snub Abe at the meeting, and they agreed to the encounter, Chinese officials said.

The meeting between Xi and Abe kicks off 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 World War II, 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 a short meeting between the two leaders, Yang said.

The United States, which took control of the islands at the end of World War II, handed them over to Japan in 1972, and since then Japan has refused to accept that there was any dispute over their sovereignty. China says the islands were taken from it by Japan at the end of the 19th century.

As for China’s view that Japan has done too little to repent for its occupation of China, Togo of Kyoto Sangyo University said it would be politically impossible for Abe to accede to one Chinese demand: that he announce publicly that he will not visit the Yasukuni Shrine. Such a pledge to stay away from the shrine, which honors Japanese war dead, including some who are convicted war criminals, would antagonize his conservative political base.

"Abe cannot say he will not go, but it doesn’t mean he will go," Togo said.

Some Japanese analysts said they believed that Abe’s visit to the shrine in December 2013 was sufficient to satisfy his domestic constituency, allowing the prime minister to focus on developing a modicum of a working relationship with China.

Though the four-point document agreed to by both countries last week appeared on the surface to be evenly balanced, it contained a significant concession by Japan, according to Ren Xiao of Fudan University in Shanghai. Its declaration that there were indeed different positions on the islands, he said, "fulfilled China’s requirement" that Japan acknowledge the existence of a dispute.

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