Sino-Japanese relations are typified by frosty posturings and face-saving gestures that often conceal diplomatic initiatives. The goal for both sides is to preserve freedom of action.
That seems to be the case with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s latest give-and-take with Beijing. Abe, on Tuesday, sent a ritual offering to Japan’s war-linked Yasukuni Shrine. His action sparked the usual protests from China and South Korea.
The rub is that Abe made his “masakaki” tree offering as a private individual, rather than as Japan’s PM. This served two purposes: Appeasing right-wing elements in Japan who want him to honor Japan’s war dead, while ducking any hint that he’s making an official visit to the shrine in a move likely to please Beijing. He’s also unlikely to visit later this month during the Shinto shrine’s popular spring festival.
It was an official visit that Abe paid to Yasukuni in 2013 that stirred a firestorm of protest from China and other Asian nations.
Meanwhile, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman told a press conference that China’s trying to arrange an informal meeting between President Xi Jinping and Abe when they attend a two-day Asian-African summit in Jakarta from Wednesday. This, despite the fact that Abe angered China earlier this week by saying in a Japanese TV interview that he doesn’t intend to use the word “aggression” and “apology” regarding Japan’s behavior towards Asian neighbors when he makes a statement in August marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II. Abe doesn’t see the need to go beyond a past statement on the issue made by then Japanese Prime Minister Tomiichi Murayama nearly 20 years ago.
Abe, for his part, said ahead of his Jakarta trip that he aims to improve Sino-Japanese ties, and reiterated that he is ready to meet Xi.
“I’m ready to meet with (Xi) if such occasion arises naturally. I would like to improve ties with China further based on the principle of a mutually beneficial, strategic relationship,” Abe reportedly told reporters on Tuesday.
What will Xi and Abe talk about in Jakarta? It’s likely to be less about the war and more about reducing bilateral tensions and perhaps Japan’s still-pending membership in the China-led Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank.
While eyes are on Jakarta, U.S. and Japanese negotiators are reporting significant progress over the last few days in hammering out an agreement that would ensure Japan’s participation in the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership. Abe also plans to hold a summit with President Obama in Washington, D.C. on April 28.