China makes advances; Abe govt keeps guard up

China makes advances; Abe govt keeps guard up
PHOTO: AFP

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met face-to-face with Chinese President Xi Jinping for the first time in about five months on April 22 in Indonesia, on the sidelines of the Asian-African Summit held to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Asian-African Conference, also known as the Bandung conference.

"People become friends from the second meeting," Xi told Abe. His smile clearly contrasted with the sulky expression he wore when he held a summit meeting with Abe in November 2014 in Beijing.

It was the first meeting between a Japanese prime minister and a Chinese president in three years.

"We can only boost mutual understanding if we squarely face history," Xi told Abe. "Nobody in China takes a hostile view of today's Japan. The ceremony in September to commemorate victory over Japan is not intended to criticise today's Japan. So I'd like to invite you."

China considers Sept. 3 this year to be "the 70th anniversary of its victory over Japan" and plans to hold a large ceremony in Beijing. Many Chinese government officials hope the Japanese leader will attend the event to stress Beijing's position as a "victor country."

Abe did not commit himself regarding Xi's request, saying, "It may be difficult to attend it unless there are elements of reconciliation between Japan and China." Xi's expression remained mild as he heard this.

Exchanges between Japan and China, which had been suspended after the Japanese government placed the Senkaku Islands under state control in 2012, resumed in various fields after Abe held a summit meeting with Xi in Beijing in November last year.

The Abe-Xi summit meeting in Indonesia was held ostensibly at Japan's wish. However, it was actually China that strongly requested the meeting.

On July 7, the Chinese government held a ceremony to mark the 78th anniversary of the Marco Polo Bridge Incident, which triggered the Sino-Japanese war, in the Museum of the War of Chinese People's Resistance Against Japanese Aggression in a suburb of Beijing. Xi, who criticised Japan at last year's ceremony, did not show up this year and only inspected the museum's special exhibition.

"Xi's power base has stabilized and there's less need now to stress "anti-Japan" slogans amid domestic political strife," a Japanese government official said. "The Chinese leadership shares a desire to improve ties with Japan."

It seems to be China that now needs what is called a strategically reciprocal relationship with Japan. Japanese investment in China is key to stemming the economic slowdown. Xi called for Japan's participation in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank during the bilateral summit meeting in Indonesia apparently because it wants to increase market confidence in the AIIB.

"The relationship with China has improved every time I hold a summit meeting with President Xi Jinping," Abe reportedly said during a working dinner at the Group of Seven summit meeting in Elmau, southern Germany, on June 7. "I've talked with him only twice, though." Abe's remark evoked laughter from the G-7 leaders.

What changed China's attitude? Some observers say Beijing has been isolated by the Abe administration's active diplomacy in Southeast Asia and its efforts to strengthen the Japan-US alliance.

Abe chose Vietnam, Thailand and Indonesia as destinations for his first tour after launching his second Cabinet in December 2012 and visited all 10 of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations member states in a year. His administration is also strengthening security co-operation with countries, including the Philippines, which are at odds with China in the South China Sea.

During a summit meeting with Abe in Tokyo in April last year, US President Barack Obama became the first US president to clarify that the United States is obliged to protect the Senkaku Islands under Article 5 of the Japan-US Security Treaty. Intensifying confrontation between Washington and Beijing over China's land reclamation in the South China Sea also worked to Japan's advantage.

Japan and the United States share a sense of crisis over China's reckless maritime advances.

"The military power of each Southeast Asian country in the South China Sea is very weak," Abe told Obama during a summit meeting in Washington on April 28. "The role of US forces and the Japan-US alliance is key." Obama said he understands that.

China has not stopped pressuring Japan over history and the Senkaku issue. Chinese government vessels have repeatedly entered waters off the islands - in June, a total of 77 ships entered the contiguous zone around the islands. China also plans to build a large coast guard base on its East China Sea coast.

"In the end, China is a country that only believes in power," Abe's close aide reportedly advised the prime minister on Japan's policy toward China. "Power leads to deterrence."

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