A generally reliable indicator of the status of relations between two countries is the frequency of high-level meetings and communications between government officials of each side. Based on this indicator alone, current ties between China and Japan, which arguably constitute the most important bilateral relationship in Asia, could hardly be any worse. Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have not formally met since both came to power more than 18 months ago. Not only have there been few high-level meetings between Japan and China in the last few years, but “all effective communications channels are gone,” according to a veteran Japanese diplomat.

The current dispute between the two most important Asian economies stems from competing territorial claims over a set of uninhabited islands—called Senkaku by Japan, which controls them, and Diaoyu by China—as well as perceived attempts by Japan to whitewash certain episodes of its wartime history. While Japan and China have been regional rivals since the late 19th century and have fought two wars, the latest downturn in relations is cause for particular concern, as China’s increasingly assertive foreign policy and Shinzo Abe’s refusal to compromise have led to close calls in the East China Sea. Fighter jets are being scrambled in the East China Sea with increasing frequency and the large number of patrol ships in the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands has led to greater risks of incidents, which could quickly escalate and disrupt regional stability.

Despite a spike in nationalist rhetoric in China after Tokyo announced in July that it would loosen restrictions on its Self-Defence Forces, there are indications that efforts are being made to orchestrate a détente. On the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum held in Myanmar in early August, the Japanese and Chinese Foreign Minister met to discuss ways to ease tensions. Previously, Xi had reportedly received former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda in Beijing in order to find ways to mend the relationship. This seems to indicate that the Chinese leadership is at least prepared to consider the idea of a summit.

Notwithstanding these meetings, Shinzo Abe and other Japanese officials have on numerous occasions expressed eagerness to hold a leaders’ meeting during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit that will take place in Beijing in November 2014. However, the official Chinese reaction to these advances has been relatively cool. In response to Japanese calls, the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson said in July that if Japan refused to “correct its attitude and take concrete actions, there (was) no way for China and Japan to improve their relations.” The message was clear: while China is willing to hold a meeting, if Abe’s desire for a summit is to be realized, he has to change his view of history and of the Senkaku/Diaoyu island dispute. For Beijing, this means that Abe has to acknowledge the existence of a dispute, something he has steadfastly refused to do. As far as “concrete actions” are concerned, the Chinese government expects Abe to stop all visits to the Yasukuni shrine, which it perceives as glorifying Japan’s wartime conduct.  

What could explain Beijing’s rather cool response to Tokyo’s advances? Part of the answer may lie in rising nationalism, which has become an important feature of China’s political and social life. Polls have shown that negative perceptions of Japan among Chinese (and vice-versa) are running high, with more than 9 out of 10 holding an unfavourable view of their neighbour. Consequently, with Abe refusing to budge on the island dispute or the history issue, Xi may consider acquiescing to a summit a politically dangerous option. If Tokyo does not recognize the existence of the territorial dispute, a meeting with Abe could be seen as an unwarranted concession to Japan.

Abe has thus far proven impervious to pressure, and is seen as far less willing to accommodate Beijing than his predecessor. We are thus unlikely to witness in Abe the changes that the Chinese government deems necessary for a summit. However, both sides understand that a continuation of the dispute is in neither party’s interest. Thus, we can hope that behind-the-scenes negotiations could lead to a softening of stances or face-saving declarations that would allow for a summit without either leader being seen as offering excessive concessions.

When facing contentious relationships, holding a summit meeting and (re)opening regular lines of communication are often the first steps toward easing tensions. In the case of China-Japan relations, the sources of tension are too complex and the perception gaps too great to expect a meeting between Xi and Abe to resolve many differences. However, we can realistically expect a summit to help reduce misperceptions, set out a course of action for future negotiations and foster good faith. Considering how high the stakes are for China and Japan, passing up the opportunity for a November summit would be unwise.

Next: David Welch on how to fix Japan-Korea relations

Considering how high the stakes are for China and Japan, passing up the opportunity for a November summit would be unwise.
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