A Tale of Two Summits?

Commentary | October 30, 2014

EWI Fellow Jonathan Berkshire Miller discusses the significance of the upcoming November 10-11 APEC meeting in Beijing.

This November, Beijing will be abuzz as China hosts the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) Leaders’ Meeting. The APEC Leaders’ Meeting is one of the few marquee events where world leaders in the Asia-Pacific region can meet. This year’s meeting has the potential to host two critical summits. The first summit, between U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping, has been arranged and is a much awaited follow-up to the Xi-Obama visit in Sunnylands, California last summer. The second summit, between Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, remains a moving target as Beijing and Tokyo jockey for the necessary conditions and backdrop for a potential meeting.

There are a number of reasons why these two potential meetings should be looked at together. First, with regard to the U.S.-China summit, there remains an underlying discomfort in Washington about properly managing the much bandied-about term “major-power relations” in reference to the U.S.-China relationship.  Daniel Russel, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, has tried to remove any lingering ambiguity on the Obama administration’s understanding of the concept: “The phrase that now adorns coffee mugs and t-shirts all over Washington—‘a new model of relations between major powers’—is a catchphrase that the Chinese are very fond of but that we also endorse. What we mean by a new model is not the notion of some sort of G2 condominium, but rather a conviction that the U.S. as an enduring power and China as a rising and important nation—certainly in the region and on a global scale as well—that these two countries are not condemned to some sort of mechanistic standoff.”

Indeed, the “major-power relations” era has confused some of Washington’s allies in Asia including Japan, which felt that the Obama administration had effectively given a free pass to China. Therefore, Obama’s follow-up meeting with Xi—along with any statement that comes out of that meeting—will have to consider the messaging not only to Beijing, but also to Tokyo, Manila and others. While focussing on cooperation on a range of international economic and security issues, including North Korea, Obama should also stress to Xi that one key element to “major power relations” is the adherence to international norms and laws in the maritime domain.

This meeting really sets the stage for a potential landmark encounter between Abe and Xi in Beijing. The two leaders of Asia’s biggest economies have not met since Abe took office in late 2012. China and Japan have been in a diplomatic standoff since Abe’s predecessor purchased three of the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands from a private buyer in September 2012. Despite a tough line on Chinese assertiveness in the East China Sea, the Abe administration has been working hard to arrange a summit with Xi for the past year and appears close to its goal for a meeting at APEC. The nature of any summit remains undetermined but it could range from a simple handshake to an informal meeting. At this point, even a handshake meeting would be welcome and could re-energize back-channel diplomatic efforts already underway.

The basis for a meeting remains uncertain, but there are reports out that Japan has more or less negotiated terms for the summit. While Abe has consistently voiced his desire to meet Xi, he has also publicly denounced the idea that such a meeting should be based on certain preconditions. Meanwhile, China has indicated that Japan needs to “show sincerity” on issues relating to history and territory. Essentially, Beijing is looking for a two-pronged pledge from Japan before re-engaging at the head-of-state level. First, China wants a guarantee—even if not public—that Abe will not visit the controversial Yasukuni shrine again while in office. Second, Beijing is demanding an acknowledgement from Japan that there is an active dispute in the East China Sea. On face-value, both concessions are politically very difficult for Japan but with the proper amount of nuance from Tokyo and compromise from Beijing it might be possible for both sides to agree on a middle path that would allow an informal summit at APEC.

If there is an Abe-Xi meeting, we should not expect anything significant to come directly out of the meeting. Yet, this encounter would be important, due to its symbolism, alongside quietly improving diplomacy at the working level between both countries. Over the past four months, tensions in the East China Sea have been gradually lowering and there has been a recent resumption of maritime crisis management talks between respective authorities in China and Japan. Moreover, there have been a number of visits to Tokyo and Beijing by senior government and former government officials over the past few months in an effort to reinvigorate “shuttle diplomacy” and set the stage for a resumption of sound bilateral ties. A successful Xi-Abe meeting would be the first official sign for more robust diplomatic engagement at the working level.

Jonathan Berkshire Miller is an EWI fellow with the China, East Asia and United States Program