Japan, China head back to table over maritime hotline

Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Japan and China have agreed to resume talks aimed at establishing a hotline to prevent accidental clashes between Japanese and Chinese forces, a development expected to boost the possibility of an Abe-Xi summit meeting during the Asian-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in November.

Following Japan's repeated requests, the agreement was reached Wednesday at bilateral senior-official level talks to discuss maritime issues.

The preparatory talks will likely resume by the end of this year.

However, many still question how seriously China is approaching the talks. Tokyo will likely face difficulties before the mechanism actually goes into operation.

"It's extremely significant from the perspective of crisis management," Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga said in praise of the agreement at a Thursday press conference.

Tensions are running high in waters around Okinawa Prefecture's Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea, following incidents in which Chinese fighter jets ventured abnormally close to Self-Defence Forces planes.

It has therefore become urgent to set up a maritime liaison mechanism consisting of a hotline between the two countries' defence authorities, to avoid the risk of an accidental military conflict between Japan and China.

Under the mechanism, worst-case scenarios can be avoided by relevant senior officials of the two countries' defence authorities contacting each other by phone in case of an emergency. Regular meetings between such officials will also become possible.

The system will enable aircraft and vessels in the vicinity to directly contact one another using radio communication.

Even if a contingency occurred in relevant waters or in the air, further military conflicts and subsequent development into political issues could be prevented through the mechanism.

Discussions over creating the mechanism were discontinued after Japan's nationalisation of some of the Senkaku Islands in September 2012.

Beijing will host the next APEC summit meeting in November, which seems to be a factor behind China's softened stance toward the resumption of talks.

As a condition for realizing a Japan-China summit meeting, the administration of Chinese President Xi Jinping has demanded that Japan acknowledge the existence of a territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands and that this will be set aside during the summit talks.

The Japanese government has not shown any sign of agreeing to China's conditions.

However, despite being the host nation of the APEC forum, if China chooses to decline a summit meeting only with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, it may face criticism from the international community.

The agreement to resume talks over the maritime mechanism seems to indicate that China is laying the groundwork for a Japan-China summit meeting.

Reflecting widely held opinion in the Japanese government, an official at the Prime Minister's Office said: "We've gotten on the right track. We feel that China wants to hold a summit meeting with Japan."

However, there are issues to be sorted out in detail. Different radio communication frequencies are currently used, which must be fixed under any shared mechanism. The selection of relevant officials will also be an important process for each government.

Talks on the liaison mechanism made no progress in the past because the Chinese People's Liberation Army remained unenthusiastic toward its establishment.

Some officials in the Japanese Defence Ministry are concerned that the talks may be adjourned once the APEC meeting is over.

Speaking to reporters on Thursday, Defence Minister Akinori Eto said the talks should be resumed "the sooner the better."

His remarks suggest that Japan aims to hold the next maritime meeting before the APEC forum, to set a course for an early start to the mechanism's operation.