After the Abe-Xi summit: What comes next in Japan-China relations?

On November 10, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and China’s President Xi Jinping met in Beijing for 30 minutes or so on the outskirts of the APEC regional economic summit, then underway in China’s capital city. The two leaders had not met since each came to power almost two years before, during which time diplomatic, economic, and even rocky security ties had taken a serious turn for the worse.

Veteran government officials and security analysts, while pretty much united in saying that Asia’s two superpowers talking would certainly seem to beat the alternative, were also divided about China’s ultimate intentions, and just how far and how fast relations between Tokyo and Beijing might improve.

Last week we began a five-part interview series on these topics. First up was Corey Wallace, a specialist in Japanese foreign and security policy. Then came Bob Manning, an Asia specialist with the Atlantic Council in Washington, followed by Michael Green of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, and Bonnie Glaser, a respected China specialist who is also from CSIS. Today we hear from Jonathan Pollack, a long-time China-watcher from the Brookings Institution.

DISPATCH JAPAN: Looking back, how significant was the Abe-Xi meeting?

POLLACK: It was a minimalist meeting; certainly not a breakthrough in the bilateral relationship. Abe wanted the meeting more than Xi. Ultimately Xi, playing the gracious host, had to accommodate.

The ‘body language’ was interesting. There were no national flags on the scene, at least none that could be seen on videos of the meeting. Xi even kept Abe waiting for a minute or two. The meeting itself was only 30 minutes. If you compare all of these ‘observables’ with those of the meetings Xi held with Korean President Park, Russian President Putin, and with President Obama, the signal from the Chinese was that Xi was meeting Abe because China was the host of the APEC meeting, and there was sufficient diplomatic maneuvering in advance that both sides could claim to not be making any unprincipled compromises to bring the meeting about.

But that’s really all it was: a meeting, and one that did not have appreciable political or strategic content.

It is interesting to ask why, under the circumstances, the two sides felt compelled to meet, and what their respective concerns might be to sustain a partial and limited accommodation.

DISPATCH JAPAN: At any point did you think Xi might limit the encounter to a mere handshake?

POLLACK: I thought they might make it perfunctory. Xi was host of the larger conference, so he had to do something with Abe. But there was intensive maneuvering in advance, including important gestures from former Prime Minister Fukuda with Abe’s consent. Serious foreign policy professionals, such as Abe’s national security advisor Shotaro Yachi, were involved. This gave the two leaders enough of a zone within which they could operate.

For China to have limited the encounter to a mere handshake would have looked churlish beyond belief. At some level, they are both engaged in a bit of a public relations war. Would either side want to be perceived as unyielding and uncongenial?  As host, China was particularly keen on avoiding that perception.

Xi had particular incentives to make the APEC meeting and the surrounding meetings go as seamlessly as possible.

DISPATCH JAPAN: Shortly before the leaders’ meeting, China and Japan issued separate but overlapping statements outlining 4-points of agreement on the bilateral relationship. You could say the statements were artfully drafted to allow both sides to claim victory. But they also tended to highlight their differences.

POLLACK: It is interesting to note what is in the statements, and what isn’t; where there is seeming concurrence, and where there is none at all. The Chinese made no reference to common strategic interests. They did talk about a relationship of mutual benefit, even a strategic relationship of mutual benefit. But that is a difference in tone that is significant.

The articulated basis of an agreement on how to overcome political obstacles was obscure, at best.

The most positive element, contained in both statements, was agreement on the need for effective crisis management, or rules of the road, to avoid an incident or an accident that would put the relationship in a very bad spot.

Since 2012, both governments have seemed to be thinking they could engage in risky, confrontational behavior without any major consequences. The reality is that there were major consequences, particularly in the economic relationship, particularly for Japan, given its present economic vulnerabilities.

The tension was between China’s determination to alter the status quo, which they insist they have done via air and maritime operations near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, versus the danger of continued deterioration of the bilateral relationship, potential escalation, and the risk of something really bad happening between China and Japan.

Some bureaucracies in each country might see escalation to be in their interests. But neither leader sees it that way.

DISPATCH JAPAN: Were the differences in the two statements deliberate, to allow both countries to claim victory?

POLLACK: That’s possible. They nominally were working from a common template. But the differences were sufficiently pronounced as to tell us a lot about what the Chinese consider the necessary actions by Abe if there is to be some qualitative improvement in the bilateral relationship.

The Chinese continue to use terms like ‘deadlock’ and ‘stalemate,’ and one might say that this is for political effect. But I think, in essence, the Chinese are telling Abe that he is on probation. Improvement in the relationship, China is saying, is contingent on Abe not only doing the right things, but not doing the wrong things.

This pertains to whatever under-the-table commitment Abe may or may not have made with respect to future visits to Yasukuni Shrine.

I am assuming that there is some kind of tacit understanding that Abe will not visit the Shrine. Neither side will acknowledge this, of course. For Abe, this would be far too much of a concession to make publicly. Did China insist on this, or is there still enough intrinsic value that China places on the relationship that Beijing wants to limit the dangers of a free-fall?

A free-fall in the relationship could lead to adversarial thinking and adversarial planning, which would put the two countries in a very different domain.

China was walking a fine line, knowing that Abe is likely to be around for quite a while, but not wanting to extend to him excessive political support.

DISPATCH JAPAN: The US has walked a fine line with Abe.

POLLACK: Yes. President Obama made clear in Tokyo last year that the US would, at the end of the day, oppose any efforts to forcibly challenge Japan’s administrative control of the Senkaku Islands. China can read that statement to mean that, if forced to choose, the US would choose Japan, not China. However, at times, the US has been quite displeased with Abe’s behavior, not only toward China, but equally or more so toward Korea.

DISPATCH JAPAN: If China pulls back on air and maritime operations near the disputed islands, what leverage does it have to press its claim to sovereignty?

POLLACK: That is a real challenge. This underscores the point that China has not made any big concessions here to improve the atmosphere around the bilateral relationship. But the Chinese have something in their arsenal that was not there before: the range of military and quasi-military operations near the islands has leveled the playing field with Japan, at least in the view of many in China. Japan remains in control of the islands, and I don’t think China is intent on trying to dislodge Japan. There is an uneasy peace, but it is a different peace than before. China argues that it was Japan that redefined the status quo in 2012 by ‘nationalizing’ the islands, and now China thinks it has effectively responded with stepped-up operations near the islands.

DISPATCH JAPAN: What is the dynamic underlying the islands dispute?

POLLACK: The fundamental question is how these two powerful states conceptualize their long-term relationship. From a Japanese perspective, the worst nightmare has come to pass. China is now far more powerful than in the past. This is not the China that Japan had been accustomed to dealing with. This leaves Japan very uneasy.

Abe’s design is to enhance Japan’s autonomy, and have Japan revive and assert itself. But an objective look at Japan’s demographics, the sluggish economy, and troubled relations with South Korea, shows that Japan is uneasily dependent on the relationship with the United States.

Actually, everyone in Northeast Asia is being assertive. Most attention has focused on China, and more recently Japan under Abe. China, both Koreas, and Japan are all dealing with inheritances from the past. All the leaders have links to the past.

The overriding context is China having abruptly emerged as a huge economic force, and increasingly as a military force. This does not mean any kind of strategic parity between China and the US. It is easy to exaggerate China’s accomplishments.

But Xi Jinping does not hesitate to talk about the US-China relationship potentially becoming the “anchor” of world stability and the “propeller” of world peace.

The Japanese are uneasy about their overall strategic position. Historical issues have been dredged up in ways that cannot be good at any level, certainly not for Japan’s relations with China or South Korea, and certainly not for the US, since it puts Washington in an uncomfortable position.

This is a high-stakes game. Anything that made it appear as if Japan is back on a track toward a somewhat more normal relationship with China was a very important goal for Abe. That’s why he wanted so much to see Xi Jinping.

The question is whether Abe will be able to sustain this. Do the Chinese mean what they say? China says that any measurable, tangible forward movement on a broader political and strategic sphere will require Japan to honor what China sees as the stipulations in the recent statements.

The two statements issued on November 7 demonstrate just how fragile this ‘accommodation of the moment’ may be.

DISPATCH JAPAN: Is there any sense in China that quasi-military pressure on Japan and in Southeast Asia may have backfired.

POLLACK: Very few Chinese would be prepared to admit this. My sense is that in more prudent circles in China, there is some awareness of the price China has paid for its coercive diplomacy. In Southeast Asia, the price has been very high. The US is now a far more welcomed force across East Asia as a whole, and this has been brought on in significant measure by China’s own behavior.

In Southeast Asia, Beijing is trying to repair some of the damage. An optimist might say that Xi’s meeting with Abe represented a parallel effort.

But I don’t see China investing nearly as fully in an improved relationship with Japan, as distinct from other improvements Beijing is trying to undertake, especially in Southeast Asia.

Serious strategic debate in China is more constricted now than it has been in quite some time. A few wiser hands recognize that China has really handled the relationship with Japan badly. If Abe, and the forces he represents, are indicative of this, then a prudent assessment inside China would have to ask: how did this happen? Did we Chinese contribute to this?

The overall trends in the region are not favorable to China. Japan is upgrading defense ties with the US. States like Vietnam are looking closer at the US. I cannot imagine that serious people in China welcome this.

This interview was originally published by 
Dispatch Japan