Two Asian leaders who planned to meet at the APEC meeting in Beijing actually did just that: on November 10 Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping met for a short but nonetheless symbolically very important encounter. During their reportedly not exactly ‘warm-hearted’ encounter, Abe and Xi reportedly agreed to make efforts to work on maritime crisis management in order to prevent further Japanese-Chinese maritime clashes in disputed territorial waters in the East China Sea. While it remains yet to be seen whether the Abe-Xi meeting in Beijing has created the basis and atmosphere for further and more substantive bilateral encounters, a meeting was certainly overdue. The leaders of Asia’s biggest economies which trade $350 billion with each other annually both took power in 2012 but failed to meet due to fundamental disagreements over the interpretation of World War II history and a territorial dispute over Japanese-controlled territories in the East China Sea.
Xi’s body-language on Monday made it clear that Abe is not-to put it bluntly-his favourite interlocutor and the list of issues and controversies on the current Japanese-Chinese is bound to remain long in the months ahead. Beijing and Xi have made it clear many times over recent weeks and months that if Tokyo wants to move beyond the short encounter in Beijing towards a ‘real’ and ‘full-fledged’ bilateral summit, Tokyo will-at least as far as Beijing is concerned- change more than a few things on its foreign and security policy agenda. According to Xinhua News, the Chinese Communist Party’s mouthpiece, China’s on a possible proper Abe-Xi summit meeting comprises three preconditions.
Firstly, Abe must adopt what Xinhua calls “a proper attitude” toward history, apologize for Japan’s wartime militarism, and promise to abstain from visiting the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, a controversial Shinto Shrine and last resting place 14 convicted Japanese A-class criminals of war. Secondly, Beijing requests, Japan must acknowledge the existence of a dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and thirdly explain that authorizing Japanese military to execute the right to collective self-defence does not mean that Tokyo is on the brink of returning to Japanese World War-style II militarism. All three preconditions, however, are very unlikely to be satisfied the way Beijing think they should. Judging by Abe’s revisionist and nationalist track record, developing the “proper attitude” towards history Beijing wants from Abe is arguably very close to the bottom of his policy agenda (if it is on it at all) while a promise not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine would deeply disappoint many of Abe’s like-minded Japanese nationalists and revisionists (and is therefore very unlikely to be uttered by the Japanese Prime Minister now or in the future). Japanese explanations (voiced many times ever since Tokyo in June announced to adopt legislation to allow Japanese military to execute the right to collective self-defence in the case of the defence of Japanese territory in and around home, including in disputed waters in the East China Sea) why allowing Japanese soldiers to execute the right to collective self-defence as part of what Tokyo refers to as ‘proactive pacifism’ too will most likely continue to fall on deaf ears in Beijing. Regardless of arguably convincing and rational countless Japanese explanations to the contrary, authorizing Japanese military to execute a right that is formulated in Chapter VII of the UN Charta stands for nothing less than a return to Japanese militarism as far as Beijing is concerned. As regards Japan officially acknowledging the existence of a bilateral territorial dispute in the East China Sea, Abe has slightly modified his position in an obvious attempt to facilitate a meeting with Xi in Beijing.
Before the encounter on Monday, Japanese sources reported that Abe would continue to insist during an encounter with the Chinese President that the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands are an inherent part of Japanese territory while acknowledging that Beijing too claims sovereignty over the islands. While The Diplomat referred to such a changed Japanese position as Tokyo “caving in” on the territorial dispute with China, it should not be forgotten that Tokyo acknowledging that also Beijing is claiming the Japanese-controlled Senkaku Islands is not quite the same as showing itself open to negotiate on control, let alone sovereignty, over the islands. Indeed, whether the slightly modified Japanese position on the territorial dispute in the East China Sea will satisfy Beijing's policymakers and Xi himself enough to respond positively to Japan's idea to hold a ‘real’ bilateral summit in the near future remains yet to be seen. And even if it did, it has yet to emerge what exactly Abe and Xi have in mind when hinting (as both did in the recent past) at the possibility of “negotiating” on the islands. While Tokyo insists that the islands belong to Japan come what may, Beijing too confirms that there is in essence nothing to negotiate on: from Beijng’s perspective, the islands, which Tokyo “unlawfully” annexed in 1895 belong to China, period. A return to what China and Japan agreed back in 2008, the so-called ‘functional cooperation’ in the East China Sea, i.e. the joint exploitation of natural resources around the disputed islands, seems unlikely in the foreseeable future, not least as Tokyo has-at least as far as Beijing is concerned-unilaterally changed the territorial status quo when it back in 2012 bought three islands from the Senkaku Islands from their private owner.