August 12, 2014 4:27 am JST

Japan, China still feeling their way toward summit

GAKU SHIMADA, Nikkei staff writer

NAYPYITAW -- While they agreed on the notion of improving bilateral relations, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi was not swayed by his Japanese counterpart Fumio Kishida's push for a summit later this year.

     The two sat down here Saturday for the first time since Japan's Shinzo Abe returned to the prime minister's office in December 2012. Abe has yet to meet formally with Chinese President Xi Jinping.

     Kishida voiced Tokyo's eagerness for making that happen at a meeting of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Beijing in November. But Wang replied that holding a summit would be difficult under the circumstances.

      Tokyo and Beijing stand far apart on what it would take to bring the two leaders together. Abe insists on no preconditions. But the Chinese seem to be angling for concessions, particularly on the issue of sovereignty over the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands, which China claims and calls the Diaoyu.

     Underscoring the distance between the two sides, Wang, known to converse in fluent Japanese with his friends, spoke with Kishida through an interpreter, according to a person who was there.

     Their meeting took place around 10:30 p.m. on the sidelines of an Association of Southeast Asian Nations ministerial conference.

     After that night's banquet, Kishida made a beeline out the door. Wang, sporting a light pink traditional Myanmar shirt, left about 15 minutes later. The two ministers met in "a quiet place," according to a person in attendance. Kishida told reporters later that he and Wang had "exchanged views on how to improve (Sino-Japanese) relations."

     The Chinese side had insisted on an informal encounter with no advance notice to the media and no readout afterward. Wang may have feared triggering a public backlash at home by being seen grinning with Kishida.

     Beijing knows from experience how troublesome high-level talks can be. Back in 2012, Xi's predecessor, Hu Jintao, agreed to a brief chat with then-Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda. Soon after, the Japanese government nationalized part of the Senkaku Islands. Hu ended up taking flak for the encounter from hard-liners.

     That Xi's government is now opening up to Tokyo -- witness his recent secret meeting with former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda -- suggests he is increasingly confident in his ability to face down domestic critics. Xi has tightened his grip on power with a bold campaign against corruption, daring to target even the once-untouchable Zhou Yongkang, a former security chief.

     Economic ties between the two neighbors are also in need of a thaw. Japanese foreign direct investment in China dropped nearly 50% on the year in January to June. Many revenue-starved local Chinese governments are eager to welcome Japanese companies and are growing frustrated with Beijing's lack of diplomatic effort.

     Saturday's talks represent "a step forward," said a senior Japanese foreign minister official. But Beijing remains unwilling to risk political damage from a bilateral summit until it can be sure Abe is serious about mending fences. As a test of his goodwill, it wants Abe to eschew further visits to the war-linked Yasukuni Shrine and admit the existence of a dispute over the Senkaku Islands. Neither of these proposals is acceptable, an Abe aid says flatly. For now, a summit in November remains a distant prospect.