The long and short of Sino-Japanese summits

JAPAN'S Prime Minister Shinzo Abe can hardly expect Beijing to roll out the welcome mat now that ties have deteriorated after a spat over isles in the East China Sea got ugly.

The top leaders and foreign ministers of China and Japan have not met since each side's leadership transitions late last year.

Under pressure from the United States and business groups in Japan, Mr Abe has sent emissaries and made calls for high-level Sino-Japanese contact to resume, including a meeting between himself and President Xi Jinping of China.

Japan's Nikkei newspaper reported last week that Mr Abe has decided not to visit the Yasukuni Shrine on Thursday, the anniversary of Japan's surrender during World War II, to avoid angering China and keep hopes of a summit alive.

But experts in Beijing and Tokyo say a Sino-Japanese summit would be hard to pull off for now.

China wants Japan to admit a dispute exists over the ownership of the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles, but Mr Abe has insisted that these belong to Tokyo and that talks should be held unconditionally.

That the territorial issue has become a lot more salient now means both governments have their hands tied, said scholar Matthew Linley of Temple University in Tokyo.

"The first side to back down over this issue will pay a political cost. Any Japanese politician who even suggests acknowledging a territorial dispute may actually exist is immediately swatted down," he told The Straits Times.

Mr Abe's bid to meet Mr Xi has been seen by some as insincere, and aimed more to show that Tokyo is doing its part to ease tensions with Beijing.

What's certain, though, is that an absence of summits underlines that things are not well.

For summits are a barometer of ties and a lack of these indicates the chill between the two sides.

"In the past, when relations were good, high-level meetings were frequent," said Renmin University Sino-Japanese expert Huang Dahui.

Meetings between the top leaders of Japan and the People's Republic of China began in 1972 when then Japanese Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka visited China. During the landmark visit, he met Chinese leaders Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, resulting in the establishment of diplomatic relations between the two former foes.

Before that, Japan had recognised the Republic of China, led by the Nationalist leader Chiang Kai-shek, who fled to Taiwan after losing the civil war in 1949.

The 1980s to mid-1990s was a rosy period in which Japan supported China's reform and opening up, noted Japanese sinologist Kazuko Mori. As China rose as an economic power, ties started to change around the late-1990s, she added in a paper.

Relations cooled as Japan grew wary of China's rise.

Relations hit a low after Mr Junichiro Koizumi became Japan's premier. There were no formal summits between the two countries for the five years between 2001 and 2006, during the term of Mr Koizumi, who had angered Beijing with his visits to the Yasukuni Shrine, seen as a symbol of Japan's wartime aggression.

Mr Abe may be in Beijing's bad books now, but it was his "icebreaking" visit to China in 2006 (during his first term as prime minister) - when he met then President Hu Jintao and Premier Wen Jiabao - that helped turn a new page in bilateral relations.

Relations warmed further under Mr Abe's successor Yasuo Fukuda, whose visit to Beijing at the end of 2007 was followed by Mr Hu's return visit to Japan the following year.

In Tokyo, Mr Hu and Mr Fukuda pledged to have regular high- level exchanges like summits to enhance bilateral ties.

Indeed, meetings between top leaders can help to reduce risks.

"Summits signal to all actors involved that relations between the two countries are good and therefore play some role in reducing uncertainty," said Professor Linley.

In 1978, relations entered a honeymoon phase, when Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping became the first senior leader of the People's Republic of China to visit Japan. He met prime minister Takeo Fukuda and Emperor Hirohito and said famously that the dispute over the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles should be put aside and left for the next generation to find an acceptable solution to all.

These meetings were kept up in the 1980s, with a flurry of visits both ways, by the likes of then Communist Party general secretary Hu Yaobang and then Japan Premier Yasuhiro Nakasone.

But while summits play more than a symbolic role in enhancing bilateral relations, their impact should not be overestimated.

For example, when then Chinese President Jiang Zemin visited Japan in 1998, he reportedly irritated the Japanese by lecturing them on the need to recognise history.

Just as ineffective was the last meeting between a Chinese and Japanese top leader, an informal 15-minute meeting between Mr Hu and Mr Abe's predecessor Yoshihiko Noda on the sidelines of the Apec meeting in Vladivostock last September.

Mr Hu had warned Mr Noda against Japan's plans to nationalise the Diaoyu/Senkaku isles at the meeting, but the Japanese leader later went ahead anyway. That served only to embarrass Mr Hu and anger Beijing.

For now, chances of a Sino-Japan summit look low and the likeliest form of meetings are those on the sidelines of global events.

Some reports show that Mr Abe is gunning for an informal meeting with Mr Xi on the sidelines of the Group of 20 summit in St Petersburg next month.

But given how both sides are sticking to their respective stances, it's hard to say even if such meetings can be set up or be useful, noted Prof Linley.

"I am also not sure how much would actually be accomplished in such a forum nor whether it would convince anyone that relations between the two countries are improving," he added.

hoaili@sph.com.sg