BEIJING -- After two years of tension, China and Japan are at last inching toward some sort of detente, gingerly sounding out the possibility of a meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at November's Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Beijing. The opportunity is as fragile as it is fleeting and requires both sides to proceed with extreme caution.
The meeting of the two countries' foreign ministers in Myanmar's capital of Naypyidaw last week was a significant step. Just days before, Xi received former Japanese Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda, who was reportedly on a "stealth mission" to Beijing to broker a rapprochement.
Prior to these encounters, high-level engagement had been frozen since September 2012, when a dormant dispute over a group of islands -- called Diaoyu by China and Senkaku by Japan --was reignited. Although Xi and Abe had a brief encounter during last year's APEC summit in Bali, the unplanned meeting was so awkward that Beijing did its best to downplay it.
The renewal of contacts marks a significant change from December 2012, when Abe visited the controversial Yasukuni shrine to Japan's war dead, including 14 Class A war criminals. For China, the shrine symbolizes Japan's refusal to atone for its aggression in World War II. After the visit, the Chinese foreign ministry declared: "Abe himself closed the door of dialogue with the Chinese leaders. The Chinese people do not welcome him."
Several factors are altering China's calculations. Beijing is eager to make the APEC summit another testament to its emergence as a major power and visible awkwardness with Japan would detract from that. China also wishes to demonstrate magnanimity as the host country.
Besides, Beijing's sparring with Abe has produced underwhelming results. An international public relations blitz following Abe's Yasukuni trip -- to remind the world of Japan's past aggression and warn of resurgent militarism -- resulted not in a chorus of condemnation of Tokyo but in wariness of excessive Chinese rhetoric.
Nor did harsh criticism of Abe undermine his standing at home. Abe appears able to maintain sufficient domestic popularity to serve out his term until 2016. Ignoring him and hoping for a more pro-China successor, which appeared to be Beijing's earlier gambit, now seems unproductive at best.
Abe has steadfastly shown that he does not compromise under Chinese pressure. Instead he pushes back; his administration has moved to better prepare the Self Defense Force for a challenge from China, including by boosting its capability, shifting its defense posture to the southwestern flank and tightening the U.S.-Japan alliance.
A STILL POWERFUL JAPAN
This has contributed to a rethinking of strategy in Beijing. "People have realized the stakes are so high," is how one Chinese strategist puts it. "We are facing a still-powerful Japan."
Even so, a Xi-Abe summit is far from certain. Beijing has preconditions: Abe has to make it clear he will not visit Yasukuni again as prime minister, and Tokyo must admit the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands are disputed.
The first requires Abe to shelve his nationalist instinct and reconnect with his pragmatist side, as he did in his first term. The second is not politically viable for Abe, so requires finding a diplomatic formulation that might allow both countries to claim victory or at least save face.
Meanwhile, the slightest disturbance could deepen mistrust, extinguishing the halting progress made towards engagement and dashing the chances for a bilateral summit.
PLAYING THE HISTORY CARD
The island dispute needs to be quarantined and kept out of the headlines. That is why Tokyo's move earlier this month to give official names to 158 remote islands in the East China Sea, including five that are also claimed by Beijing,was not helpful. It invited a rebuke from China and fueled popular anger.
Nor is it constructive for China to keep playing the history card. Repeated reminders of imperialist Japan's cruelty in World War II exacerbate an already red-hot Chinese nationalism and choke off room for diplomacy. For their part, Abe and senior officials in his administration have to stay away from comments and actions that suggest revisionist views on the war.
A Xi-Abe meeting by itself will not unfreeze Sino-Japanese relations. But it could stop the deterioration in relations and set the tone for the two sides to begin talks on managing flashpoints, of which there are so many -- from fishing rights to competing maritime patrols, risky naval encounters to fighter jets flying dangerously close to each other.
If these continue to be neglected, Asia's two most powerful nations could drift into a conflict they do not want and, in all likelihood, neither would be able to control.