Stuck With Each Other, Xi and Abe Seek to Find Ways to Get Along

2016 G20 State Leaders Hangzhou Summit

Xi and Abe meet on Sept. 5.

Photographer: Etienne Oliveau - Pool/Getty Images
  • Two leaders met in China amid renewed tensions over territory
  • Party could extend Abe’s term as he maintains solid support

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping agreed on the need to better manage ties when they met on Monday. They’ve got at least one shared reason to get along.

The two held their first one-on-one talks in more than a year, chatting for around 30 minutes in Hangzhou, China, on the sidelines of a G-20 summit hosted by Xi. While there was no major breakthrough, the meeting potentially reflects a recognition that for some time they will be stuck with each other.

Communist Party precedent means Xi is set to remain in power until 2022, though speculation is simmering he may seek to stay longer. Abe, meanwhile, looks increasingly likely to seek an extension to his term as ruling party leader beyond the current limit of September 2018.

In an atmosphere described as frank but good, Abe pointed out the relationship had experienced problems since they last met in April 2015, and proposed more frequent consultations in the mid to long term, Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Koichi Hagiuda told reporters Monday in Hangzhou.

QuickTake Territorial Disputes

Despite their differences, Asia’s two largest economies boast strong trade, investment and tourism ties they can ill afford to put at risk. They must also calm fears of a maritime or aerial clash around disputed East China Sea islands, where China has expanded its presence over the past few years.

Long Period

"China sees Abe as hard to get on with," said Noriyuki Kawamura, a professor at Nagoya University of Foreign Studies. "They would prefer someone more dovish. But he is making few mistakes, he has strong domestic support and he looks set for a long period in power. So rather than wait for a replacement, they have to build ties on that basis."

The relationship between China and Japan reached a low point in 2012 when Japan bought three disputed East China Sea islands from a private landlord, and ships and planes from the two countries often tail one another around the area.

While Abe inherited that crisis when he took office in late 2012, his efforts to bolster the role of Japan’s military and his 2013 visit to Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, seen by some in North Asia as a symbol of his country’s past militarism, have sparked further anger in China.

Abe campaigned for almost two years to get his first summit with Xi, held also in China in 2014, and subsequent progress has been slow and rocky, hampered by the territorial spat and China’s view Japan is interfering in its South China Sea disputes.

QuickTake map shows overlapping territorial claims of Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. {NSN O2OSHZ1ANZG8}
QuickTake map shows overlapping territorial claims of Brunei, China, Malaysia, Taiwan, the Philippines and Vietnam. {NSN O2OSHZ1ANZG8}

Japan insists that all disputes in the South China Sea be resolved in accordance with international law, and described an international court ruling in July that rejected China’s claims to the area as "final and legally binding." Abe has provided support to the coastguards and navies of some Southeast Asian nations.

President of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party since September 2012, Abe is entitled to two three-year terms. But in his August reshuffle of cabinet and party posts he installed as his LDP second-in-command Toshihiro Nikai, a vocal proponent of changing the rules so Abe can stay on and oversee the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, provided the LDP stays in power.

Building Power

While that prospect divides voters -- a poll published by JNN Monday showed 44 percent of respondents in favor and 40 percent against an extension -- public support for his government is high. The JNN poll found more than 60 percent of respondents backed the LDP, while a survey in the Mainichi newspaper put support at 46 percent.

Xi took power in late 2012, and is both the party’s general secretary and chairman of the powerful Central Military Committee. Political convention would give the 63 year-old supreme authority for at least a decade, with speculation emerging he may try to stay in power longer. 

"The quarrel between China and Japan over the past few years is also a learning process for the leaders, " said Liang Yunxiang, a professor of Japanese studies at Peking University. "Both sides, especially China, understand that they’ll have extra time together after Abe won the election," Liang said, referring to the parliamentary vote held in July.

They would be well-advised to use that time to work on economic cooperation, Liang added.

"In order to do that they have to constrain their behavior and put aside disputed topics such as the South China Sea issue or the Diaoyu islands," he said, using the Chinese name for the East China Sea islets that Japan calls Senkaku.

But frictions remain. Even on the day the two leaders met, Japan’s coastguard said four Chinese vessels were in the zone immediately outside Japan-controlled waters surrounding the islands. China has gradually increased its presence in the area, mirroring the "salami-slicing" policy that analysts say it has adopted in the South China Sea.

Abe also issued a veiled criticism of China’s South China Sea policies earlier Monday. He told a G-20 session on trade that peaceful seas form the basis of global prosperity, Hagiuda told reporters. Abe noted the importance of freedom of navigation, of aviation over the ocean and the rule of law in supporting trade, Hagiuda added. There was no response from any of the other leaders, Hagiuda said.

Japan has frequently used similar language to criticize China over its activities in the South China Sea.

— With assistance by Keith Zhai, and Isabel Reynolds

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