Understanding China and Japan’s Four Point Consensus: A Breakthrough or Political Expediency?

By Yun Sun
in Program

This is the second in a series of two essays analyzing the outcomes of the Japan-China Summit held on the sideline of Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this month in Beijing. The first entry in the series can be read here

China’s official media has termed the four-point consensus reached on November seventh as an “unexpected breakthrough.” Indeed, prior to the announcement, the widely-shared perception in China was that Japan was unlikely to make concessions on recognizing the dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands and on history issues. Therefore, the expectation had been that Xi would meet with Abe “unofficially” out of the political need for courtesy as the host for the APEC Summit, although meaningful dialogues would be extremely improbable, if not completely impossible.

The Chinese apparently see the four-point consensus as its major diplomatic success in Sino-Japan relations.  China has been for a long time pressing Japan to recognize the existence of dispute over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands to no avail. For China, the acknowledgement of the “different positions existed” between the two countries regarding the disputes islands is “the first time an official bilateral agreement has mentioned the Diaoyu Islands and for Japan to admit different positions.”  Some Chinese analysts even have gone as far as interpreting the message as Japan’s acceptance of the new status quo – the so-called co-administration of the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands.  On the other “political obstacle”- the visits to the Yasukuni Shrine by the Japanese Prime Minister, the agreement fell short of a commitment on Japan’s part that Prime Minister Abe would not visit the Yasukuni Shrine for the rest of his term. Nevertheless, China perceives the inclusion of “facing history squarely… and overcoming political obstacles in the bilateral relations” as “an obvious constraint” to such future visits.

The biased interpretation of the four-point consensus hence is rather striking since China’s own coercive behaviors in the East China Sea and the instigation of domestic anti-Japan sentiment are also key sources of obstacles in the bilateral relations. However, the Japanese concessions are invariably believed to be the victory of the Chinese hardline approach.  Although the two sides also agreed to prevent the situation from aggravating through dialogue and consultation and establish crisis management mechanisms to avoid contingencies, the success of Chinese coercive policies could set a bad precedent.

It remains to be seen whether the four-point consensus and Xi-Abe meeting represent a genuine turning point for the improvement of China-Japan relations after years of tensions and hostilities. Needless to say, they represent the first potentially hopeful sign for real improvement of relations after years of dangerous hostilities.  They are a good first step, but much more needs to be done. For example, if the meeting itself serves as any indicator, the lack of friendliness and meaningful dialogues offer observers little confidence in prompt progress in bilateral ties in the near future. In addition, based on the initial assessments, the Chinese appear unconvinced that Abe has abandoned his “rightist” policies.

Therefore, the worries lie in that the consensus and the meeting were motivated and necessitated by political needs on both sides and therefore are nothing more than temporary tactical shifts instead of genuine strategic adjustments. People need to closely examine the developments between China and Japan after the APEC Summit to evaluate whether the “breakthrough” in the past week was in fact the beginning of a new era or simply the ephemeral product of immediate political expediency. 

Follow Stimson’s East Asia program and Stimson on Twitter

Photo credit: Gobierno de Chile via Wikimedia

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