Tentative steps by China, Japan to mend ties

Series of low-level visits to get dialogue back on track but observers not fully optimistic

CHINA and Japan appear to be taking some tentative steps to contain the fallout from their worst diplomatic spat in decades, with a series of low-level visits to get political dialogue back on track.

Next week, Tokyo Governor Yoichi Masuzoe will visit Beijing, the first such trip in 18 years. This follows a trip last week to Japan by Mr Hu Deping, a confidant of Chinese President Xi Jinping, who met Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe.

Though Mr Masuzoe has said his visit is aimed at learning how Beijing hosted the 2008 Olympics as Tokyo prepares to be the 2020 host, he might also play the role as Mr Abe's special envoy, as he is a close confidant of the premier, said North-east Asia expert Wang Dong of Peking University.

Noting how Mr Masuzoe's role mirrors that of Mr Hu, whom Mr Abe reportedly told of Tokyo's readiness to hold dialogue and mend bilateral ties, Professor Wang said: "I think these are efforts by both sides to try to communicate to each other.

"Beijing and Tokyo see the danger of continuing build-up of tension over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands, which has pushed both sides closer to the edge of an open conflict, potentially involving the United States as well."

Other examples include a meeting on Tuesday in Beijing between Vice-Premier Wang Yang and a Japanese business delegation led by former foreign minister Yohei Kono.

Another is an upcoming meeting between Japan Maritime Self-Defence Forces chief of staff Katsutoshi Kawano and his Chinese counterpart Wu Shengli later this month at the Western Pacific Naval Symposium in Qingdao city.

The Japan Times reported that the naval exchange, if it takes place, would be the first senior level military meeting since September 2012 when Tokyo bought some of the disputed islands in a move that first caused ties to plummet.

Another example: Chinese patrols around the isles, which averaged 1.1 weekly between August 2012 and September 2013, have dipped to one every two weeks since last October, wrote Massachusetts Institute of Technology analyst Taylor Fravel and Harvard University analyst Alastair Iain Johnston.

China Foreign Affairs University analyst Zhou Yongsheng said China is proactively seeking better ties to minimise impact on its hosting of key events like the Apec Leaders' Summit in November and the Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA) Summit in Shanghai next month. Japan is a member of Apec, and an observer of the CICA, a regional security forum.

"A protracted stand-off hurts both sides. It will also be awkward for China in dealing with Japan at such events," he told The Straits Times.

But observers are not entirely optimistic over the efforts given past failed attempts, most recently around last November when businessmen and academics from both sides increased exchanges. These efforts were undone by Mr Abe's surprise visit last December to the Yasukuni war shrine, which honours Japanese war criminals, angering the Chinese.

Peking University's Prof Wang said unless there are changes in Japan's positions, "we should be cautious about the prospect of any quick breakthrough". Regional security expert Takashi Inoguchi of the University of Tokyo said he is "cautiously optimistic", adding: "While economically, it makes sense, it is very easy for things to go wrong."

kianbeng@sph.com.sg

Additional reporting by Hau Boon Lai in Tokyo