Xi, Abe break the ice, but the chill remains

Xi, Abe break the ice, but the chill remains
China's President Xi Jinping (R) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (L).

Both leaders looked grim as they walked towards each other, hands outstretched. Their handshake was awkward, and neither man offered a smile when they posed for the obligatory photo.

The widely anticipated meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe yesterday started off frostily. At one point, Mr Xi turned away just as Mr Abe appeared to be speaking to him.

Their body language says it all, especially Mr Xi's, according to analysts. It reflects that both sides might not have been too happy with the compromises they had to make for the meeting - one that Mr Abe had been pushing for - to take place.

"It sends this signal to the other party: I am meeting you not as a friend. I still blame you for the deterioration in the bilateral relations. You should do more to improve the relationship," Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang of the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies said.

Mr Abe wanted a formal meeting with Mr Xi to show that he is able to improve ties with Japan's largest neighbour.

Mr Xi is believed to have agreed to the meeting to show himself as a gracious Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation host, and also after extracting sufficient concessions from Japan, as evidenced by the four-point consensus reached by both sides last Friday.

It included resumption of political, diplomatic and security dialogue and a mutual recognition that "different positions" or "different views" - phrases used by the Chinese and Japanese respectively - exist over tensions stemming from their dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.

Columbia University professor Gerry Curtis told Reuters that "Mr Xi's apparent stiffness in greeting Abe was a nod to his domestic audience, which still harbours memories of Japan's brutal wartime occupation".

"Xi had to be concerned about how the meeting was covered in China. Looking like he was meeting his best friend would probably not go down all that well."

But China Foreign Affairs University assistant president Wang Fan said the less-than-warm interaction between Mr Xi and Mr Abe was to be expected given that it was their first encounter since they took power in late 2012. "Of course, it also shows a recognition that problems remain in the bilateral relationship. Still, it is a good thing for all that both leaders have met," he told The Straits Times.

Chinese media reported the meeting prominently, with some pointing to China's "magnanimity and sagacity" in agreeing to it.

In Japan, it was the top news item on television. Japanese media stressed the point made by Mr Abe that the meeting is the "first step" towards better ties.

Observers agree that the Xi-Abe meeting will go some way towards ending the testy political relationship of the past two years and improve cooperation between Asia's two largest economies.

"The summit meeting has made it possible for the senior military and defence leaderships to sit down to talk about measures to avoid a crisis taking place or to better manage a crisis if it happens at all," said Professor Li.

But analysts also warn that any progress in Sino-Japanese ties could easily become undone.

"What comes next should be for both Beijing and Tokyo to give full play to their wisdom and courage so as to build on the momentum and speed up the thawing," said a Xinhua commentary.

"The onus is primarily on Abe. It is Tokyo that cast the ice spell on China-Japan relations; it is also Tokyo that called for the Xi- Abe meeting. Now that Abe has talked the talk, he needs to walk the walk," it added.


This article was first published on Nov 11, 2014.
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