China's President Xi and Japan PM Abe's awkward handshake: What experts have to say

Finally, in this picture, US President Barack Obama is welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit banquet at the National Aquatics Center in the Chinese capital on Nov 10, 2014. -- P
Finally, in this picture, US President Barack Obama is welcomed by Chinese President Xi Jinping as he arrives for the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit banquet at the National Aquatics Center in the Chinese capital on Nov 10, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Here is Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) meeting with China President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings, Nov 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Here is Singapore's Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong (left) meeting with China President Xi Jinping at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings, Nov 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Likewise, this is Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Beijing on Nov 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Likewise, this is Russian President Vladimir Putin (right) shaking hands with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit in Beijing on Nov 9, 2014. -- PHOTO: AFP
Now let's see how both are, when they meet other leaders instead. This is India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) shaking hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the end of their joint news conference at the state guest house in Tokyo on
Now let's see how both are, when they meet other leaders instead. This is India's Prime Minister Narendra Modi (left) shaking hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at the end of their joint news conference at the state guest house in Tokyo on Sept 1, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
A group shot follows as Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie (left) pose for a photo with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan. -- PHOTO: AFP
A group shot follows as Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and his wife Akie (left) pose for a photo with Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan. -- PHOTO: AFP
On Monday evening though, they had a second chance to do the handshake all over again. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd from left) approaches China's President Xi Jinping (2nd R), as Abe's wife Akie (left) and Xi's wife Peng Liyuan stand beside
On Monday evening though, they had a second chance to do the handshake all over again. Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (2nd from left) approaches China's President Xi Jinping (2nd R), as Abe's wife Akie (left) and Xi's wife Peng Liyuan stand beside, during the Apec Welcome Banquet at Beijing National Aquatics Center, or the Water Cube, in Beijing, Nov 10, 2014. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
China's President Xi Jinping (right) finally shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but it's the first shot in this picture gallery that will make the headlines throughout Monday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
China's President Xi Jinping (right) finally shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe but it's the first shot in this picture gallery that will make the headlines throughout Monday. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) is about to shake hands with China's President Xi Jinping (right). -- PHOTO: REUTERS
Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) is about to shake hands with China's President Xi Jinping (right). -- PHOTO: REUTERS
As they approach each other, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extends his hand early before reaching China's President Xi Jinping (right) but the latter is a little slow himself. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
As they approach each other, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe extends his hand early before reaching China's President Xi Jinping (right) but the latter is a little slow himself. -- PHOTO: REUTERS
This is the main photo in a series of shots early on Monday that got political watchers commenting. China's President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the
This is the main photo in a series of shots early on Monday that got political watchers commenting. China's President Xi Jinping (right) shakes hands with Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during their meeting at the Great Hall of the People, on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) meetings, in Beijing on Nov 10, 2014. Decide for yourself, the body language. -- PHOTO: REUTERS

Talk of how Sino-Japanese relationships had taken a turn for the better dominated the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) Summit on Monday as China's President Xi Jinping and Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met one-on-one for the first time, yet an awkward handshake between the two leaders in front of cameras attracted top billing as well.

The image of a stiff, unsmiling Mr Xi greeting Mr Abe at Beijing's Great Hall of the People prompted a whirlwind of speculation of how the meeting - which Mr Abe described as "gentlemenlike" - had transpired.

International relations watchers and local experts on body language spoke to The Straits Times and give their take on the landmark affair.


Dr Li Mingjiang is an associate professor and coordinator of the China Programme at S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, Nanyang Technological University

Dr Li said Mr Xi's body language clearly indicated that he does not like Mr Abe and wanted the media to take notice of his attitude toward the Japanese Prime Minister. 

He added: "Xi probably wanted to send a signal to Abe that the four-point joint statement (a consensus aimed at improving bilateral relations) had not entirely satisfied China's demands and he still needs to do more to gain China's trust."

Dr Li also suggested that Mr Xi wanted Mr Abe to know that the meeting does not mean the end of the tense ties between the two countries, and that China would continue to be tough on Japan on the Diaoyu islands dispute as well as the bitter legacy of Japan's occupation.


Dr Lam Peng Er is a political scientist from the National University of Singapore's East Asian Institute

Dr Lam thinks that both men appeared very stiff in the video, with Mr Xi maintaining a poker face and failing to reply to Mr Abe's greetings.

He said: "The atmosphere of the meeting appeared to be rather chilly, but it is still important symbolically and will pave the way for lower level ministers and bereaucrats to hold dialogues on issues of common interest.

It remains to be seen if Abe will visit the Yasukani Shrine during his remaining tenure as Prime Minister - if he does, then Sino-Japanese relations will hit rock bottom again and it is unlikely Xi will meet him again in office."


Dr Heng Yee Kuang is an associate professor (international relations) and assistant dean (research) at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore

Dr Heng felt that Mr Xi has to adopt a cautious approach when it comes to maintaining his image in front of the Chinese people.

"He probably doesn't want to look 'too friendly', only to lose face if Abe were to visit Yasukuni Shrine again," he said.

But Dr Heng also noted that the setting probably moved this meeting along faster than it would have taken if both countries were left on their own, and the challenge now was to ensure it was not done simply for Apec.

Calling it a "small, positive step at least", he observed that the awkward camera moment had been borne out of the necessity for both men to appear together.


Christian Chua is an expert on body language and leads his own Christian Chua Training Academy

Based on past videos of Mr Xi, Mr Chua thought that the Chinese leader appeared "totally cold".

"He (Xi) is not known for giving broad smiles, but he did at least afford smiles to other leaders like US President Barack Obama. It's a huge red flag, that even though the pair shared a good handshake, Xi's body language and facial expression was not congruent.

"It felt as if he was merely going through the motions."


Teo Ser Lee is the founder and director of Protocol Academy, which provides professional etiquette and protocol training

Ms Teo preferred to focus on their handshake, which she said looked very firm and professional.

She commented: "Xi usually appears stiff and stern in photos, so people could be reading too much into his expression. That said, the way he stood was not very friendly, as he was not facing Abe. I saw how he greeted PM Lee Hsien Loong and there was a marked difference."

She also pointed out that Mr Xi's demeanour while greeting the rest of Mr Abe's entourage later in the video, was not very positive.

She added: "Instead of being a forthcoming and sincere host, he merely stood there and proferred half-hearted handshakes to them."


John Sih runs professional consultancy Accent Training Consultants and is also a body language expert

Mr Sih said Mr Abe cleared showed a more positive approach towards Mr Xi during the initial exchange, maintaining eye contact throughout. Mr Xi, in contrast, had a resentful look on his face.

"During the handshake, Abe also appeared to exert more pressure on his grip compared to Xi, with the Chinese leader looking away first. It showed that he was not reciprocating Abe's grace and willingness to communicate."


The duo's frosty meeting appeared to have thawed as the day wore on, however, as both leaders - along with their wives - were photographed at the Apec Summit banquet smiling for cameras as they once again shook hands. 

mklee@sph.com.sg