Bland handshake that got things moving
THAT empty expression President Xi Jinping of China made when he shook hands with Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan was his blandest face of the entire Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (Apec) summit last month. It was their first meeting, and it lasted only 25 minutes.
And yet it was a turning point in relations between China and Japan, especially after renewed tensions over the East China Sea islands that both states claim as their own - known as the Senkaku in Japanese, and the Diaoyu in Chinese.
In fact, the Chinese government had expressed such an outcry over that disagreement in recent months that it would need quite a good excuse to justify to the Chinese public having any direct contact with Japan's prime minister.
Hence the strict, lopsided conditions Mr Xi set before meeting Mr Abe last month: Japan would have to formally acknowledge there was a territorial dispute between the two countries, and Mr Abe would have to promise to no longer visit the Yasukuni Shrine, which honours Class A war criminals among Japan's war dead.
But just before the summit, the two sides reached a cleverly crafted agreement conveniently open to multiple interpretations. It stated that China and Japan hold different views about their recent tensions in the East China Sea - allowing the Chinese side to claim to its people that Japan had formally acknowledged the existence of a dispute, as Mr Xi required, while allowing the Japanese government to tell its own audience back home this wasn't so. (Yasukuni was not mentioned.)
Mr Abe and Mr Xi deserve credit for this constructive vagueness. By sharing in it, they took a responsible step towards calming tensions in East Asia. Mr Abe, in particular, seems to have calculated that while he would lose points with some supporters, he could bear such a burden more readily than Mr Xi, who is struggling to bridge divisions between hawks and doves in China's military and foreign policy establishment.
This could not have been easy for Mr Abe. China has frequently sent patrol boats into the waters around the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, and the Japanese public generally supports taking a tough stance against such provocations and on security matters having to do with China. According to a joint survey conducted this summer by the Japanese non-governmental group Genron NPO and the China Daily, 93 per cent of the Japanese do not have a good impression of China.
But many Japanese also understand that China is an important neighbour, and is essential to their own peace and prosperity: In the same survey, over 70 per cent of the Japanese said that the relationship between Japan and China was important, and about 80 per cent expressed concern over its current state or the need to improve it. Mr Abe knows this.
He also knows that Mr Xi is in a more delicate position than he is. On the one hand, tensions with Japan have economic costs for China. According to China's Ministry of Commerce, Japanese investment in China from January to June this year fell by almost half as compared to the same period last year. Commerce Minister Gao Hucheng told a delegation of Japanese business people in September that the tension between the two countries was hurting economic ties, and that was something he did not want to see.
Yet it is also a general principle of Chinese politics that a leader without a solid power base cannot improve ties with Japan. The Chinese leadership uses nationalist fervour to compensate for a deficit in legitimacy, and to unite the party and the nation, and Japan is a familiar target, especially for the hawks in the military and the Propaganda Department. Judging by the Chinese media's lukewarm coverage of that historic handshake last month, Mr Xi is not secure enough to actively promote the Chinese-Japanese relationship yet.
But that encounter has opened the way for improvement. Although this was not reported in China, Mr Abe told Mr Xi during the meeting that he thought Japan and China could cooperate over four issues: to foster greater cooperation in the East China Sea; deeper economic relations; a more stable security environment in East Asia and, first and foremost, greater mutual understanding.
The Abe-Xi handshake has already revived talks that had stalled, like the New Japan-China Friendship Committee for the 21st Century, which met recently in Beijing. The Friendship Committee, for which I serve as secretary-general on the Japanese side, is a panel of non-politicians that acts as an advisory body for the prime ministers of the two countries.
During our meetings last week, we spent some time clearing up the confusion the Chinese media had created on the Chinese side about Mr Abe's commitment to his pre-summit agreement with Mr Xi. Then, we discussed ways to strengthen the bilateral relationship, for example, by establishing a crisis-management mechanism to avert clashes in the East China Sea.
Now, Mr Abe and Mr Xi must show the Japanese and the Chinese people the tangible benefits of such cooperation. That starts by letting them know the promising facts.
For example, the Friendship Committee discussed ways to strengthen the exchange programme that since 2007 has brought to Japan at least 30,000 young people from the Asia-Pacific region, including China. However trivial such people-to-people contact may seem it can change the dynamic between the two countries by dispelling common misconceptions.
In fact, a greater understanding between the Japanese and the Chinese people can help Mr Abe and Mr Xi overcome pressure from the nationalistic forces in the establishment camps of Japan and China.
The writer, a professor at the University of Tokyo, is a visiting scholar at Peking University.