Nov 11, 2014 4:31 AM

Japan-China ties still fragile after leaders meet

The Associated Press

TOKYO (AP) What happens next in Japan-China relations depends not only on what they do, but also on what they don't do.

A tentative, some would say grudging, first meeting between their leaders on Monday raised hopes of a gradual improvement in ties, but any misstep on two fundamental issues could send the relationship back into deep freeze.

China wants Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to refrain from visiting a shrine that honors Japan's war dead, including convicted war criminals. He did so last December, on the first anniversary of taking office, and a repeat visit would infuriate China after President Xi Jinping acquiesced to a meeting with Abe during an Asia-Pacific summit in Beijing.

Beijing says Abe's visit showed his insensitivity to Chinese suffering during Japan's brutal 20th century invasion and occupation of China, a lingering sore point for its 1.3 million people.

Considering Abe's "less-than-glorious track record," the official China Daily newspaper said in an editorial Tuesday, pleasant-sounding rhetoric needs to be followed up by action for the thaw to take hold. Action, in this case, is as much about what China wants Abe not to do.

Japan is hoping the detente will lead to at least one concrete step, the establishment of a hotline to manage any incidents at sea or in airspace over islands that both countries claim, to prevent them from developing into a serious crisis or clash.

Abe said Tuesday that he and Xi agreed to move forward with plans for a maritime crisis mechanism, including the hotline and other measures.

"Countries sharing borders will have difficult issues rise from time to time," he said at a news conference at a Beijing hotel. "That is precisely why we should have dialogue again and again."

Japan's nationalization of the islands in 2012 infuriated Beijing. Chinese ships regularly sail into the waters around the islands, challenging Japan's sovereignty, and are chased away by Japanese coast guard vessels.

Japanese Defense Minister Akinori Eto said Tuesday that he wants to start work on the mechanism as soon as possible, and "the ball is in (China's) court."

Analysts said they believe the mechanism, which has been under discussion for years, could become a reality.

"The commitment to a maritime crisis management hotline is actually symbolically the most important, as well as the key practical outcome," said Corey Wallace, a maritime security expert at the University of Auckland in New Zealand.

Economically, the leaders' meeting was welcomed by Sadayuki Sakakibara, the chairman of the Japan Business Federation, known as Keidanren. He noted that political and diplomatic ties impact economic relations too.

But no substantive progress was made on the larger issue of the territorial dispute itself, involving a group of small, uninhabited islands called Senkaku by Japan and Diaoyu by China.

Former Japanese diplomat Kazuhiko Togo said until that situation is resolved, "the fundamental instability and fundamental fragility of our relationship continues. So that has to be remedied, but how and when, nobody can tell."

Abe also chatted informally at a leaders' dinner Monday evening with South Korean President Park Geun-hye, another neighbor with whom he has frosty relations. Seated next to each other, they agreed to promote ongoing working-level talks to improve ties. The conversation offered a glimmer of hope that Japan-South Korea ties could be on the mend too.

Xi, who hosted Abe and other world leaders at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, looked unhappy to be shaking hands with Abe before their meeting, but Japanese analysts didn't portray it as a snub. Rather, they said Xi probably had to play to his domestic audience.

Japan is happy that the two leaders met, under any circumstances, even if no real headway was made on the territorial dispute. Both sides realize that the meeting was a small first step.

"China is not the easiest neighbor to get along with," a front-page column in Japan's left-leaning Asahi newspaper said Tuesday. "But it is a fact that we are neighbors, and since neither country can relocate, the only thing we can do is thaw the frozen water in the well if we want to drink from it. Could any cracking of the ice be heard at the Abe-Xi summit?"


Associated Press writers Chris Bodeen and Jack Chang in Beijing and Mari Yamaguchi and Elaine Kurtenbach in Tokyo contributed to this story.


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