Kor Kian Beng, China Bureau Chief, In Beijing

Cautious optimism in China over Xi-Abe meet

There is a discernible note of cautious optimism in China over the impact of the first formal meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe on improving the dismal state of bilateral ties, with observers noting several more important factors are at play.

State media and analysts stress that Japan's actions in fulfilling its promises in a four-point consensus both sides reached last Friday would be key, even as many focused on the ice-cold body language of both leaders when they met on Monday morning.

The headlines of state media editorials yesterday were telling. For instance, China Daily's piece entitled Japan Still Has Work To Do warns against "overinterpreting their meeting", saying it would lead to disappointment. Calling the meeting more ceremonial than substantive, it said: "Considering the Abe administration's less- than-glorious track record, their commitment should not be taken for granted and their words need to be matched with credible actions."

But at a media briefing yesterday, Mr Abe said Japan and China "both have the responsibility" to ensure peace and prosperity in the region and the world.

"I told President Xi that we should go back to the starting point of a mutually beneficial relationship based on common strategic interests."

Washington-based analyst Yun Sun said there is a worry the meeting was "necessitated by political needs on both sides and represents temporary tactical shifts rather than strategic adjustments". "This is the reason that we need to closely follow the developments between the two countries after the Apec Summit to evaluate whether the meeting is in fact the beginning of improvements or simply the product of immediate political considerations," the Stimson Centre think-tank observer told The Straits Times.

Mr Abe had reportedly pushed for the meeting with Mr Xi to show he has international clout despite domestic problems with key ministers being removed over funding scandals.

Mr Xi reportedly agreed to the meeting out of the need to show himself as a gracious host of the Apec, or Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation, summit in Beijing.

Also, the Chinese cautiousness, which is seen too in how no major newspapers placed the Xi-Abe meeting on the front pages, stems from a lack of trust in the Japanese after past disappointments, say analysts. For example, at the Apec summit in September 2012 held in Vladivostok, then-Chinese President Hu Jintao spoke with then-Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and urged Japan against the nationalisation of the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands in the East China Sea.

But the Noda government formally decided to buy the islands the next day, which sparked turmoil in the bilateral ties till today.

China has also been irked by visits and offerings by Mr Abe and his ministers to the Yasukuni war shrine which honours some of Japan's Class A war criminals, along with revisionist efforts by Japan's right-wing forces over its wartime actions in China.

For now, China has been eager to stress that it has come out looking stronger than Japan from the Xi-Abe meeting. State media ran photos showing how Mr Xi was stone-cold towards Mr Abe on Monday and how the four-point consensus represents a first written concession from Japan that the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands are in dispute. Some also hailed what it claims to be a promise by Tokyo to uphold the commitment made by previous governments on the historical issue, like an acknowledgment of the use of Chinese women as wartime sex slaves.

There is no mention though of China's air defence identification zone launched last November, which has reportedly also spiked tensions that nearly caused vessel and plane clashes.

Singapore-based analyst Li Mingjiang said that while the consensus is clearly a mutual compromise, he said Japan conceded more ground because "it looks like Japan making promises to satisfy the Chinese demands while China did not make any pledge to satisfy Japanese demands".

Peking University North-east Asian expert Wang Dong said one key factor to watch is the extent to which Mr Abe keeps his word on carrying on the views held by previous Japanese governments on the historical issue. "If he goes to Yasukuni Shrine again later this year, then the bilateral relations will again face serious obstacles and challenges," he added.

Analysts say other external factors could also affect the future state of Sino-Japanese ties.

Dr Yun noted the United States, Japan's security ally, is an unavoidable variable. "China sees the US-Japan security alliance as emboldening Japan's actions and Japan is concerned that the US might neglect Japanese national interests in seeking cooperation with China," she said.