TOKYO -- For the first time in two years, Japan and China are working to resume discussions on setting up a hotline to avoid accidental collisions between their forces at sea and in the air.
The countries first decided to set up the hotline in April 2007, when Shinzo Abe was serving his first stint as prime minister. In June 2012, an agreement was reached on three broad principles: the hotline would connect their defense chiefs, discussions would be held regularly, and a common language and radio bandwidth would be set up to enable aircraft and ships to contact each other on site.
But discussions broke off when Japan nationalized the Senkaku Islands, which China claims as its own. Last month, the two finally agreed to reopen the talks, but left open the timing. Japanese officials say they have proposed talks at the end of this month and are waiting for a reply from China.
Japan aims to gauge China's true attitude by asking for a resumption two weeks before November's Asia-Pacific Economic Conference summit, which Beijing will host. As for China appearing to be more flexible on certain issues lately, some still fear that Beijing only wants to boost its appeal internationally by showing that it is working to reduce tensions before the summit.
In fact, even if China assents to the talks, it could end up asking for a delay or drag its feet on a final agreement. "We want to see how China reacts to the proposal," said a high-ranking Japanese defense official.
Abe told a Diet upper house committee that he wanted "to work this out quickly." Tensions in the region continue. In May and June, Japanese and Chinese fighter jets came perilously close in the skies above the Senkakus in the East China Sea, for instance.
China also recognizes the need to set up a hotline, but has repeatedly said Japan must first create an environment in which such a mechanism be effective.
But as Chinese President Xi Jiping consolidates his power base, his flexibility in dealing with Tokyo is questionable considering the strong anti-Japanese sentiment gripping the country. And views are split on how much of a hold he has on his nation's military.
Even if Abe and Xi manage to hold a summit at the APEC meeting, wide gulfs remain in Sino-Japanese relations, including the recognition of certain historical facts and sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands. Whether they can agree to resume the hotline talks will help indicate the state of bilateral relations.