Apparently, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe calculated that sharing a few words with Chinese President Xi Jinping was worth the risk of a potential brush off. This set the stage for Abe’s diplomatic gambit at the G-20 Summit meetings in St. Petersburg earlier this month. While leaders milled about in the moments before the kickoff, Abe approached Xi and extended his hand in an attempt to begin a process of chipping away at the diplomatic deep-freeze in Sino-Japanese relations since last September’s purchase of three of the disputed Senkaku-Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea.
While the handshake was more than mere window dressing, the gesture does not replace the urgent need for Abe and Xi to meet formally. Xi, much like Park Geun-hye in South Korea, waited out the August 15 anniversary of Japan’s World War II surrender (in order to avoid being embarrassed by a visit by Abe or senior cabinet ministers to Yasukuni Shrine). That anniversary came and went with little diplomatic fury, despite press statements from foreign ministries in Seoul and Beijing, as a result of Abe’s decision to refrain from personally visiting Yasukuni. Before approaching the idea of a rapprochement with Japan, Xi also wanted to get beyond another troublesome anniversary – September 11, 2012 – the date on which the previous Japanese government under then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda purchased three of the disputed islands from a private landowner in order to dissuade the hawkish former mayor of Tokyo Shintaro Ishihara from attempting to bid on them.
Both anniversaries have passed with relatively little blowback, setting the stage for a return to engagement for Tokyo and Beijing. Herein lies the rub. While Abe may be sincere in his approach to Xi, he has thus far failed to impress Beijing due his apparent refusal to countenance any concessions on the East China Sea row. Indeed, Abe has repeatedly denied China’s demand that Japan acknowledge there is a dispute out of fear that such a move would embolden Xi to hasten existing plans to change the status quo around the islands. Japan’s Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga has dismissed plans to “shelve” the row, claiming “there is no dispute, either in historical or legal terms.”
Beijing is also holding firm, however, as evidenced by recent comments by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi: “In spite of this (tensions over the islands), we are still ready to sit down and have a dialogue with the Japanese to work out jointly a way to manage the current situation. But first, Japan needs to recognize that there is such a dispute. The whole world knows that there is a dispute. I believe there will be a day when the Japanese come back to the table of dialogue.” It is worth noting that these comments were made after Abe’s “handshake diplomacy” in Russia.
Thus, while Abe may have broken the stalemate in St. Petersburg, it seems that Sino-Japanese relations remain fixated on a dangerous game of brinksmanship over nuanced concessions. All the while, Chinese vessels continue to enter Japanese-controlled waters daily and with impunity. And while the maritime domain has been ground-zero for potential miscalculations, both sides have elevated this dispute to include the air space above – a game changer. According to a report by TIME, Japan has been scrambling its jets in Okinawa at four times the rate of the previous year, in what is a clear reaction to perceived threats from Chinese aircraft around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands. Exacerbating tensions even more are reports that Beijing is now flying unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) near the isles, creating the risk that Japan could shoot the planes down if they invade its airspace.
In short, Abe and Xi cannot permit the very real chance that potential miscalculations will further derail bilateral ties to a point of complete disrepair. Diplomacy requires risk – as evidenced by the Obama administration’s calculated response to Iran’s diplomatic overture on its nuclear program. The first step here will be for Beijing to agree to incremental diplomacy instead of standing on its principles and crossing its arms. Thus far, China has not been receptive to this approach. The week after Abe secured an authoritative win in the Upper House elections in July, he sent one of his top diplomats, Vice Foreign Minister Akitaka Saiki, to Beijing in order to warm ties. During his trip, Saiki reportedly met with Wang Yi and broached the idea of an Abe-Xi summit in Russia. This followed an earlier visit to China by Abe’s special advisor Isao Iijima, who predicted a summit between the two leaders could happen in the near future. Rather than managing the message and shaping the dialogue, the Chinese foreign ministry responded by blasting Iijima’s claim and even disputing the notion that the envoy held meetings with significant political figures during his stay in Beijing.
Japan also should cede to China a willingness to be flexible and progressive during these incremental talks, which would help it skirt around its commitment for non-preconditions. At a very minimum, both sides need to work to kick-start talks at the High Level Consultation on Maritime Affairs (HLCMA) – a mechanism established in 2011 to mitigate clashes between the Chinese Coast Guard and the Japanese Maritime Self Defense Forces. Unfortunately, the wide range of players under the tent has clogged this mechanism. Maritime expert James Manicom recently noted the pitfalls: “Despite such ambitious goals, the multiplicity of bureaucratic actors (in the HLCMA) and attendant scheduling difficulties, suggests that consultations are not likely to move beyond confidence building to a full agreement in the near future.”
Finally, while a step-by-step approach is essential, this should not preclude a formal meeting between Xi and Abe in the near future. It is unrealistic to expect a grand bargain or a fulsome rapprochement, but this does not mean that an organized pull-aside meeting would be ineffective. Rather than staking out the grander goal of a leaders’ summit, Tokyo and Beijing should actively work toward a meeting on the sidelines of the ASEAN Regional Forum this November in Brunei. It is time to move on from handshakes to substance.