The Buzz

Calm in the East China Sea?: What to Make of Shinzo Abe and Xi Jinping's Recent Meeting

Despite the hype, widespread media reports calling Beijing’s and Tokyo’s simultaneous November 7 declarations on “improving Japan-China relations” a “joint statement” are inaccurate. Calling them a “breakthrough” is, at best, premature. Together with the brief and chilly summit meeting between Chinese president Xi Jinping and Japanese prime minister Abe Shinzo in Beijing this past Monday, the developments of the past week constitute only a tentative first step toward a possible, and explicitly “gradual,” return to normalcy in relations between the world’s second- and third-largest economies. Indeed, Xi’s reportedly cold reception of Abe during the APEC 2014 meeting in Beijing makes clear that political relations, even if no longer frozen, remain on ice.

Much work must be done to achieve a desperately needed, but politically difficult, sustainable thaw. With Sino-Japanese relations arguably having reached a postwar nadir the past two years, in large part because of disputes over history and what each side sees as the other’s provocative behavior vis-à-vis contested islands in the East China Sea, the continued peace and growing prosperity of East Asia depends on proactive leadership and statesmen determined to guarantee it.

As far as the prospects for this, despite much with which to be pleased, the past week’s developments, coupled with the lessons of recent history, are sobering. For starters, a point-by-point comparative analysis of the statements released by China (Chinese /English) and Japan (Japanese/English) in Chinese, Japanese and English leaves significant grounds for skepticism about the prospects for a fundamental, long-term, sustainable break through the unfortunate impasse that has plagued Sino-Japanese relations. Despite clever diplomatic wordplay and politically expedient spin—especially in Beijing—no four-point agreement, much less an alleged “principled consensus,” has been reached. Rather, each government effectively released its own separate statement. Analyses based exclusively on one side’s statement are incomplete, if not misleading.

Read the Lines, and Between Them

While the spirit of Beijing’s and Tokyo’s simultaneous declarations may convey consensus, their letter does not. Despite some important (and positive) overlap in substance, last Friday’s statements remain more significant for what went unsaid. Subtle, but major, differences in wording make clear that the most contentious issues in Sino-Japanese relations persist.

For starters, and contrary to earlier, ambiguously sourced reports suggesting that Tokyo would acknowledge the existence of a sovereignty dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu in Chinese) Islands in the East China Sea in exchange for a bilateral summit, Abe did not “cave” in to pressure from Xi. Contrary to reports on last Friday’s agreement from major global news publications, including theNew York Times and the Associated Press, the two sides did not simply “agree to disagree,” nor did Tokyo “acknowledge differing views over the status of the islands” in a “concession likely to please Beijing.” Since Abe also made no explicit vow to refrain from again visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine as prime minister, Tokyo appears to have not met either of Beijing’s repeatedly stated preconditions for a resumption of normalized, high-level political dialogue. Accordingly, claims of a major concession from Tokyo or, conversely, a major diplomatic coup for Beijing, are significantly off the mark. For its part, Beijing made no commitment to reduce, much less cease, what Tokyo sees as provocative and dangerous maneuvers of Chinese vessels and planes into waters and airspace around the contested islands. While the shared commitment expressed in the statements to improve crisis management is laudable, despite some reports to the contrary, this pledge remains rhetorical. The two sides have been talking about related measures for over a decade, with only limited fruit borne. One can only hope this time is different, as the ability of the two sides to effectively manage a crisis remains a major concern.