In a heartening win for diplomacy, Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Japanese counterpart, Shinzo Abe, met on the sidelines of the Apec summit in Beijing for formal talks after two years of increasingly bad-tempered clashes over competing territorial claims. An uneasy relationship at the best of times, given the bitter historical baggage and nationalistic fervour each country fans in the other, China-Japan ties have been frozen since 2012, when the issue of the ownership of a set of strategically significant uninhabited islands in the East China Sea, called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan, blew up. In the years since, both sides have repeatedly scrambled fighter jets in response to perceived incursions, and fears that the confrontation would escalate into armed clashes have deepened with successive spats.
In 2012, government-sanctioned anti-Japan riots across China saw the destruction of Japanese cars and storefronts. Late last year, Beijing was outraged by Abe’s visit to the Yasukuni Shrine, dedicated to honouring Japan’s World War II dead, including war criminals. Then, in January, the Chinese envoy to the UK lambasted Japan in an op-ed, likening it to Harry Potter villain Lord Voldemort. A Japanese diplomat responded with exactly the same insult, but casting Beijing as the evil dark lord.
The agreement between Xi and Abe, cautious and ambiguously worded though it is, defuses some of the tension by acknowledging that Beijing and Tokyo have different perspectives on the sovereignty dispute and setting it aside to move forward in other areas, including building mechanisms to manage crises. Yet, the awkwardness of Xi and Abe’s handshake and their dour demeanours signal that the underlying issues in the standoff have not gone away. Both nations have been guilty of pursuing a convenient strategy of competitive nationalist posturing to push other agendas. Building mutual trust after such prolonged acrimony will take more time and sustained effort.