A Chinese-Japanese Summit in the Offing?

Asia-Pacific summit approaching in Beijing, where PM Abe has yet to visit amid tensions over disputed islands, shrine for Japan's war dead

A Chinese-Japanese Summit in the Offing?

In his 20 months in office, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has visited 51 countries, fully a quarter of the membership of the Unite Nations -- making him the most widely travelled leader in post-war Japan.

In early November he will visit the 52nd country, one that he has conspicuously avoided along with South Korea since gaining office in December 2012. That country, of course, is China -- with whom bilateral relations are deeply frayed.

Abe can hardly avoid going to Beijing since China is hosting this year’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, an annual gabfest that draws presidents and prime ministers from some 20 or so nations that border on the Pacific.

This year’s APEC meeting -- to be held from November 10 to 11 -- is taking on outsized importance and not a little suspense. As official host, Chinese President Xi Jinping can hardly snub the Japanese leader, but the question is whether the two can have a substantive meeting on the conference sidelines.

China’s leaders have refused to meet with Abe one-on-one since his election in late December 2012 as a way of expressing their displeasure with the territorial dispute involving conflicting claims to the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands in the East China Sea, among other issues.

What China hopes to gain from any summit is fairly clear. It wants Abe to not only abstain from visiting the controversial Yasukuni Shrine for Japan’s war dead, but to make a public promise not to repeat his December 2013 visit during the rest of his term and to keep his cabinet from going too.

On the Senkaku issue, Chinese leaders want the Japanese leadership to admit that there is a genuine dispute over the Japanese-administered uninhabited rocks that Beijing insists are Chinese territory. Japan’s position is that there is no dispute over the islands that it has claimed and administered for more than 100 years.

The Chinese object to Japanese premiers making official pilgrimages to the Yasukuni shrine because among the more than 2 million spirits of former soldiers and sailors there, are 14 former Japanese leaders convicted of waging aggressive war against China and other countries in the 1930s and 1940s.

It is hard to believe that Abe would publically promise never to visit the Yasukuni again as such a move would go against deeply held conservative convictions about the history of the war.

It is not hard to imagine, however, that he might make a private assurance to abstain from visiting the shrine. Most of the premiers for the past 20 years avoided the place. Moreover, his standing with his conservative base in Japan is strong, especially with his cabinet’s recent “reinterpretation” of Japan’s pacifistic constitution to allow its armed forces to aid allied forces in trouble.

As time passes and Abe potentially enters his fourth or fifth year in office without another visit, an event that seems likely, conservatives and extreme right-wingers -- who think of Abe as being one of them -- will begin to get restless and start to complain that he “sold out” to the Chinese.

It can be confidently assumed that Abe will not endanger prospects for a summit with Xi by visiting the Yasukuni during the fall festival season that began Friday. He is conveniently out of the country visiting Italy to attend the Asia-Europe Summit in Milan.

However, three of his new female cabinet ministers paid their respects Saturday in their official capacity, and Abe sent an offering under the title "prime minister" -- sparking a protest from Beijing. Other lawmakers are expected to visit before the autumn festival ends Monday.

On the matter of the disputed islands in the East China Sea, Abe is not likely to back down from the government’s official position that they are an integral part of Japan. But while he maintains there is no legal dispute, he may recognize that it is a genuine issue in Sino-Japanese relations.

Japan has been quietly laying the groundwork for a summit since this past summer, when former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda journeyed to Beijing.

Fukuda is well-liked in China. For one thing he declined to visit the Yasukuni Shrine during his term as premier from 2007 to 2008. He also heads the Boao Forum for Asia, which Beijing is hoping to build into a kind of Asian version of the Davos meeting in Switzerland.

Since mid-September, more lower-level but experienced diplomats and advisors to Abe have visited Beijing hoping to help smooth the way for a substantive summit.

Also in September, some 200 Japanese business leaders traveled to Beijing under the rubric of the Japan-China Economic Association. It was the largest-ever Japanese trade delegation.

While Japanese trade with China is back to normal following the tensions of recent years, investment still languishes.

While in Beijing, Abe may also want to meet with the leader of another country that he has so far avoided, namely South Korea’s President Park Geun-hye. That relationship too has plenty of irritants, including a dispute over an island in the Sea of Japan and the recent indictment of a Japanese journalist for allegedly defaming Park.

However, the main issue dividing the two is history. Park is likely to ask Abe for a promise that his government will not alter or retract the so-called “Kono Statement” of 1993 in which Tokyo acknowledged that it had forced women in occupied countries to work in army brothels.

The Abe administration flirted with that idea earlier in the year, but decided against any repudiation. But since then, Japan’s leading newspaper the Asahi Shimbun published a retraction to stories that ran in the late 1980s and 1990s based on the recollections of a former army officer person who had claimed to have abducted Korean women during the war.

The Japanese government says it will issue a news statement next year to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of World War II -- and liberation of Korea -- but it remains unclear how it will be couched. One close advisor to Abe said the Kono Statement had “already served its purpose.”

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Güncelleme Tarihi: 19 Ekim 2014, 13:07

Muhammed Öylek

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