Xi-Abe meeting thaws frosty ties

Japan and China may not have moved closer to resolving their longstanding dispute over the Diaoyu-Senkaku islands but bilateral relations that froze in 2012 appear to have thawed somewhat after a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the sidelines of the APEC summit in Beijing on Monday.

This is the first time in over two years that the leaders of the two countries met.

Although their interaction was reportedly awkward, even cold, the meeting served to break the ice.

That they met was an achievement in itself. It took many months of quiet back-channel talks to make it possible.

Last week, diplomats agreed to put aside the territorial dispute, which underlies their frayed ties, to revive talks especially the high-level dialogue on economic co-operation.

At the meeting, Xi and Abe decided to begin work on maritime crisis management.

Such a crisis management mechanism will help keep a lid on tensions, preventing them from escalating out of control.

Sino-Japanese relations have deteriorated considerably since 2012. Amid rising tensions over the disputed Diaoyu-Senkaku island-chain, the Japanese government purchased three islands from its Japanese owner.

China responded to the provocation by sending its vessels into the disputed waters.

Tensions have persisted since, fuelled further by nationalist rhetoric from both sides.

It has triggered fears that a clash, whether deliberate or otherwise, between Japanese and Chinese vessels in the disputed waters would escalate into a larger conflict.

It is in this context that the Xi-Abe decision to initiate work on a maritime crisis management mechanism must be seen. Clearly, this is a positive step.

The Beijing meeting has opened up space for the two countries to repair frayed ties. Both sides need to build on the foundation laid at Beijing.

An early initiation of talks to put in place the proposed crisis management mechanism may also help them hold structured bilateral dialogue to address the territorial dispute over the medium-term.

Trust building is important to create the right atmospherics for such a dialogue as resolution of territorial disputes requires compromise from both sides.

Besides, since memories of Japanese militarism during World War II remain vivid in China, Japanese leaders must avoid re-opening old wounds through insensitive statements or behaviour as they have in the past.

Abe’s repeated visits to the Yasukuni shrine, a memorial that honours Japan’s war dead including several convicted World War II war criminals, hurts sentiments in China.

He must avoid such provocative behaviour if he is serious about improving relations with his neighbours.

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