Chinese Premier, Japan’s Prime Minister Meet for First Time

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In the lead-up to the November APEC summit, reading the tea leaves on a possible summit between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has become the favorite pastime of pundits everywhere (including here at The Diplomat). Today provided two conflicting omens. First, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang met with Abe on the sidelines of a meeting in Italy. Second, Abe sent a ritual offering to the Yasukuni Shrine, eliciting predictable criticism from China.

The Li-Abe meeting was a first, as a hypothetical meeting between Xi and Abe would be. The two men had not met since both came to power in late 2012. Li ended his tour of Europe by attending the Asia-Europe Meeting in Milan; Abe was present on behalf of Japan. The two men shook hands at a dinner, according to Japan’s Nikkei newspaper. Bloomberg reports that Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has confirmed the meeting took place.

To be clear, when we say “meeting” we’re talking about a brief handshake and likely an exchange of harmless pleasantries. The fact that this routine exchange between leaders could be considered newsworthy is a sign of how badly China-Japan relations have deteriorated since 2012. As there has been no top-level contact between Japan and China in two years, a handshake between Abe and the Chinese premier is a small but significant step toward breaking the ice.

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The New York Times reports that a similar short but carefully coordinated exchange is planned for next month’s APEC summit in Beijing. Japanese officials are hopeful that Abe will get a 15-minute meeting with Xi, a talk expected to be short on substance but “rich in symbolism.” Even that brief exchange, if it happens, will occur only after months of diplomatic back-and-forths between China and Japan. Such a meeting, no matter how short, would be of huge importance in signaling that both sides are interested in a more normal relationship.

Meanwhile, however, Abe sent a ritual offering (specifically, a masakaki tree) to Yasukuni Shrine on Friday, triggering an angry response from China. In December 2013, Abe actually visited the shrine, which commemorates the lives lost in service of the Empire of Japan (including, controversially, convicted war criminals from World War II). Since then, Beijing has demanded assurances that Abe will stay away from Yasukuni as a precondition for improved ties between China and Japan (including a Xi-Abe meeting). From Beijing’s perspective, Abe’s visits and gifts to the shrine are part of a general trend to “whitewash” wartime atrocities committed by the Imperial Japanese Army.

Predictably, Abe’s offering to the shrine touched a nerve in China. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said in a statement that “China is deeply concerned about and firmly opposed to the negative trends relating to the Yasukuni Shrine that are emerging in Japan.” Hong added, “Only when Japan earnestly faces up to and deeply reflects upon its history of aggression, and makes a clean break with militarism, can China-Japan relations achieve sound and stable development.”

Meanwhile, Abe and his government believe that by not having Abe personally visiting the shrine (and by discouraging other cabinet officials from doing so), they can avoid serious repercussions from China. An aide to Abe, Koichi Hagiuda, told Reuters that Abe would likely refrain from visiting the shrine before the APEC summit. Hagiuda did not rule out the possibility of a return visit to Yasukuni at a later date, however. It’s unlikely that China is going to receive the looked-for assurances that Abe will stay away from the shrine. Still, Japanese officials are hopeful that increased signs of flexibility with China will allow for a Xi-Abe meeting even without such a promise.

The Li-Abe handshake is the clearest indication we have yet that a Xi-Abe meeting is in the cards. Their brief handshake symbolized the promise of a warmer China-Japan relationship, but also the limitations of China-Japan interactions at the present time. Relations could get better, certainly, but China and Japan are unlikely to be friendly anytime in the near future. The sensitivities surrounding Yasukuni and other historical issues, as well as a more strategic battle for long-term influence in the Asia-Pacific, will prevent a true thaw, regardless of what happens in Beijing this November.

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