Chinese President Xi Jinping, 64, abruptly looked back to 12 years ago when he met with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, 63, for the sixth time in November last year. The Chinese leader said, “You came to China as the destination of your first overseas trip when you formed your first cabinet.” Abe’s  visit to China was acclaimed as an “ice-breaking trip” as it had improved the souring relations between Japan and China.
Xi also touched on an event to commemorate the 45th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic ties between Japan and China that was held one month ago. He told his Japanese counterpart, “I appreciate that you attended the event with many cabinet ministers.” Xi’s smile got even softer than the one he showed during a photo spray. It was a message from Xi that he is determined to mend the strained bilateral relationship with Abe.
Struggle for better Japan-Sino ties
Xi confidentially changed course for a rapprochement with Japan in June last year. He signed on the dotted line of a report that concluded that it is better to have a stable relationship with Japan to promote great-power diplomacy. Around that time, Abe expressed his intention to cooperate with Xi’s “One Belt, One Road” broad economic zone initiative. When Abe won a landslide victory in the Lower House election in October, Xi moved into a higher gear.
But it was not because Xi trusted Abe. Xi is still wary of Abe’s revisit to Yasukuni Shrine and Japan’s approach to Taiwan, giving Abe a warning every time they meet. Xi also worries that the momentum for constitutional amendments may indicate Japan’s departure from a policy of peace. On Jan. 11 this year, a Chinese nuclear-powered submarine entered the contiguous zone near the Senkaku Islands. There is no sign that the cause of a conflict runs out.
“I’m looking forward to seeing you in Japan,” Komeito leader Natsuo Yamaguchi, 65, said to Xi when he visited China in December last year, asking Xi to visit Japan. Xi nodded with a smile and simply replied, “Welcome”. He refrained from replying to Abe’s proposal of mutual visits in 2018 before sizing up the situation.
China becomes most sensitive to Japan among other countries because its public is obsessed with anti-Japanese sentiment. President Hu Jintao, 75, visited Japan a decade ago but came under fire after he returned home, which Xi witnessed as Vice President. Though Xi has embarked on his second term and solidified his power base, it is hard for him to step into the relationship with Japan.
Xi’s life as a politician springs from the seven years he spent in a poor village in Shaanxi Province, where he was sent down at 15 years old. He was bitten by fleas and lice while living there and came to understand the reality of a country with 1.3 billion population. He told in an interview as a senior official of a local government, “The biggest benefit was that I could understand what the public is.”
That is exactly why Xi cares about the anti-Japanese sentiment among the public. When he met with Abe for the first time in 2014, he stressed, “Historical issues concern the feelings of more than 1.3 billion Chinese people.” Abe expressed his understanding of Xi during a press conference the next day by saying, “The sense of responsibility [that President Xi holds] towards 1.3 billion Chinese was conveyed to me very keenly.”
Focus on Nikai
Xi wants Japan to participate in what China does under its initiative. Xi called on Abe during their meeting in 2015 to attend a ceremony for the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese People’s War of Resistance against Japanese Aggression. In the same sense, Xi is calling for Japan’s support in the One Belt, One Road initiative. Xi considers that it may be acceptable for the Chinese people if he advances the relationship with Japan by forcing Tokyo to admit that Japan’s and China’s positions have already been reversed.
That is why Xi attaches importance to Toshihiro Nikai, 78-year-old secretary general of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) who is willing to cooperate in the One Belt, One Road project. Nikai, who is descended from former Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka, who normalized bilateral diplomatic relations, does not go deeply into wartime history issues and disputes over the Senkakus. The LDP heavyweight appeared on a state-run China Central Television program and called for friendship, which lays the ground for improving bilateral ties.
Xi is currently avoiding speaking publicly about the relationship with Japan. He had a third person make a speech when he attended a memorial service to mark the 80th anniversary of the Nanjing Incident and when he met with Nikai. “Xi intends to be prepared to keep his distance from Japan whenever a problem arises while getting closer to Japan,” says an informed source.
Adjustments are made for the Chinese and Japanese leaders by a framework between Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi, 67, and Japan’s National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi, 74, which is referred to as “high-level political dialogue.” The framework is supported by Chinese Vice Foreign Minister Kong Xuanyou, 58, and his Japanese counterpart Takeo Akiba, 59. Both of them were appointed to a vice-ministerial post in January this year. The two officials set the stage for Abe’s “ice-breaking trip” 12 years ago as a Chinese minister to Japan and the head of the China division at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA), respectively. “You’re losing your hair.” “You, too.” The two officials who can exchange jokes are measuring the distance between Xi and Abe.