BEIJING – Four years after they went into a nosedive, tense relations between China and Japan may finally be headed for a return to some semblance of normalcy.
Those hopes rest largely on a meeting Monday between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, with Xi telling Abe that it was time to "put aside disruptions" and bring ties "back on the normal track," according to China's official Xinhua News Agency. By all accounts, Abe responded positively at their closed-door session, held on the sidelines of the summit of Group of 20 industrialized nations in the Chinese city of Hangzhou.
Following up, Japanese Foreign Minister Fumio Kishida welcomed an agreement made at the meeting to speed up talks on an early implementation of a sea and air communication system aimed at avoiding mishaps. The two countries have also agreed to hold preparatory talks next week in Hiroshima on resuming discussions on the joint development of gas deposits beneath the East China Sea.
Optimism about relations comes despite ongoing rancor on the Chinese side, met by alarm and worsening public sentiment in Japan.
Much of that revolves around a dispute over a chain of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea that are controlled by Japan but claimed by China. The dispute has elevated the islands to the status of sacred territory that must be recovered by China to erase a national shame.
Tensions spiked in 2012 after Tokyo nationalized the islands — known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as the Diaoyu — leading to violent anti-Japanese riots in China and a freeze in most official contacts. As Beijing fumed, Japanese businesses began reconsidering their massive investments in China, upping the ante for all concerned.
Relations improved slightly in 2014, when the sides announced a four-point agreement on getting ties back on track, but exchanges have proceeded at a glacial pace since then.
To a degree, Xi's comments to Abe at the G-20 summit may also have been aimed at preventing tensions from overshadowing a prestigious gathering, said Shi Yinhong of Beijing's Renmin University, one of China's best-known international relations scholars.
"China wanted to ease relations with Japan, while Japan wants to ease the pressure. As for how it will develop in the future, I can't draw any conclusions as yet," Shi said, emphasizing that there have been no shifts in their fundamental stances on the issues that divide them.
Monday's statement grew out of the momentum toward better ties that began in 2014, which, while offering much potential, remains "very fragile," said Da Zhigang, director of the Center of East Asian Studies of the Heilongjiang Academy of Social Sciences in northern China.
"I think we're seeing a 'new normal' in China-Japan relations, wherein we'll see a long-term trend of co-existence, competition and communication," Da said. "Both China and Japan admit the existence of differences, but hope to put them under control in a rational way."
Managing, rather than resolving, tensions may be the only way forward. Much of China's displeasure with Japan is rooted in a sense that the country has never properly atoned for its brutal invasion and occupation of much of China during the World War II era.
China has long fulminated over the portrayal of that history in school textbooks in Japan, and has lately expanded its list of complaints to the Japanese navy's routine presence in the South China Sea, saying Tokyo was involving itself in a dispute between China and its neighbors over ownership of the strategic water body. Having broadened the mandate of the Japanese self-defense forces, Beijing sees the conservative Abe as pushing ahead with a militarist agenda.
Japanese public opinion, meanwhile, remains highly critical of China, partly due to fears of China's economic rise, as well as its increasingly assertive military and diplomatic posture.
None of those issues appear likely to be resolved anytime soon, something Xi appeared to acknowledge in his remarks to Abe.
"Both sides should bolster their sense of responsibility and crisis awareness, and work to build on the positive elements of bilateral ties while putting a lid on negative ones," Xi said.
Ultimately, the two nations and their current leaders will have to accommodate each other for years to come. Xi is expected to remain as China's president at least through 2023, while Abe will remain head of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party at least through 2018.
The next major opportunity to test the state of relations will come in November at the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum in Peru, when Abe and Xi will likely meet again.