Meetings, John Kenneth Galbraith said, are indispensable when you don't want to do anything. Rarely will that observation prove truer than next week, when Xi Jinping and Shinzo Abe may sit down together for the first time.
On Friday, the Chinese and Japanese leaders moved closer toward holding a formal meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation confab in Beijing, by agreeing to disagree about a set of disputed islets administered by Japan and claimed by China. Talks would be welcome: Only dialogue can help China and Japan resolve their differences and deepen a trade relationship worth $168 billion as of the first half of 2014. But any “handshake summit” isn’t likely to eliminate frictions between the Asian archrivals.
Both leaders have good reason to seek a meeting. By hosting Abe on his home turf, Xi has a chance to look statesmanlike and magnanimous before an audience of other Asian leaders, many of whom remain wary of China. By contrast, snubbing Abe would've allowed Japan to play the part of mature power seeking rapprochement with a rising but sophomoric one. Chinese analysts are already crowing about the concessions Abe has made to arrange a get-together, including acknowledging that "different positions exist" over the islands.
Abe, too, is trying to appeal to other Asian leaders, some of whom worry about his push to make Japan a more normal military power. A bilateral with Xi would bolster Abe’s argument that Japan can maintain good relations with its neighbors without apologizing for its wartime record or ending official visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, which honors several convicted war criminals along with Japan’s war dead.
What’s less clear is whether either leader has any reason to go much further than that. In a September poll by research group Genron NPO, 87 percent of Chinese said they had an unfavorable impression of Japan. Most attributed their distrust to a lack of remorse for past invasions of China, a perception bolstered by Abe's own visit to Yasukuni last December. At a time when growth is slowing and more painful economic reforms still lie ahead, Xi can’t afford to defy nationalist sentiment too blatantly.
That same Genron NPO poll revealed that an astounding 93 percent of Japanese held unfavorable views of China. For Abe, one of whose goals is to restore domestic pride in the Japanese brand, those numbers are sobering. His Liberal Democratic Party relies on the support of ultraconservative groups for crucial funding and votes.
In fact, kowtowing to China simply isn't an option available to a modern Japanese leader, regardless of party. If nationalism among Chinese is driven by newfound assertiveness, among Japanese much of it grows out of insecurity. Japan Inc. has yet to get over China surpassing it in gross domestic product terms in 2010. What will resonate for most Japanese next week is how much the world has changed in China's favor since the last time Beijing hosted APEC in 2001. As Xi trumpets China’s “great rejuvenation,” expanding maritime claims and lavishing cash around the globe, Japan is devaluing its currency again.
Abe correctly views a summit is an indispensable step toward a more vibrant Japanese economy. But as all those who once thought commercial interests would prevent conflict in North Asia have discovered, economic imperatives do not trump other, deeper fears and frictions.
As Yoon Young Kwan, a former South Korean foreign minister, wrote in an op-ed this week, "The supposed 'Asian century' is being thwarted by a paradox: deep economic interdependence has done nothing to alleviate strategic mistrust." A handshake and some reassuring words for the cameras aren’t likely to do much more.
(Updates throughout to include details of the Sino-Japanese agreement.)
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