This is the first entry 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 Japan-China Summit held at the sideline of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing on November 10 is an important step for Japan and China, the two powerful countries in East Asia, to begin the process of re-establishing the bilateral relations that have broken down for the last several years.
Their summit meeting became possible only after the senior officials between the two countries have agreed on a set of principles for future Japan-China engagement. On November 7, 2014, after Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi met with Japanese national security advisor Shotaro Yachi, both governments released the four points of agreed principles that includes: (1) both sides agree to observe the spirit and principles of four basic documents and continue to strive for “mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests”; (2) domestic political difficulties need to be overcome for both countries based on the spirit of “squarely facing history and advancing toward the future”; (3) both sides recognize/acknowledge that they had different views of the tensions in East China Sea, and agree that the further deterioration of the situation needs to be prevented through dialogue and consultation and establish a crisis management mechanism; and (4) both sides agree to generally resume bilateral dialogue in various areas.
This carefully-worded document established the face-saving base of future engagement between Japan and China, creating an environment that allows Abe and Xi to meet at APEC without being criticized for compromising for the sake of a meeting by the critics in their respective countries. The most noticeable is the third of the announced agreed principles. As mentioned, Japanese and Chinese provide English translations that are slightly different from one another, suggesting that there is ambiguity in Japan and China’s respective interpretation of this principle. It illustrates that the senior officials in Japan and China, recognizing the need to resume the dialogue at leaders’ level, agree to leave ambiguity in the wording of these four principles that both countries can claim that they did not compromise on sovereignty issue.
In short term, the Abe-Xi summit is most critical because it gave a green light to the officials in both countries to begin to engage in serious discussion on how to effectively operationalize the maritime communication mechanism as a crisis management mechanism in East China Sea. Japanese and Chinese defense officials have discussed and come to a shared understanding of the basic framework of such a mechanism, but the consultation for its implementation has stalled since 2012. The two leaders’ agreement to operationalize this mechanism gave a renewed momentum to the consultation that has been dormant for the last two years.
Does the summit lead to a diplomatic breakthrough between Japan and China? No. Neither the summit nor the preceding “agreed principles” suggest any substantive change in their positions, especially on the sovereignty issue. Still, the two sides at least have decided to cooperate to prevent the maritime issues from spiraling out of control, while working toward resuming bilateral dialogue in other areas. Reestablishing the habit of dialogue and cooperation is critical in stabilizing Japan-China relations. The Abe-Xi summit, while certainly not a warm rapprochement, is definitely a step forward for stabilizing the relations.
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