China and Japan have agreed to improve ties after nearly two years of tense diplomatic standoff over a territorial row, a tentative sign of a thaw in relations between Asia’s two largest economies ahead of a gathering of world leaders in the Chinese capital.
The announcement paves the way for a symbolic handshake to be witnessed at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit next week in Beijing, where Chinese President Xi Jinping is expected to sit down one-on-one with his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe for the first time.
The two nations are at loggerheads over a set of islands in the East China Sea called the Diaoyu in China and the Senkaku in Japan. The islands are claimed by China, but in effect controlled by Japan. Beijing is also angry about what it sees as Tokyo’s unwillingness to fully recognise its atrocities during the Second World War when it occupied China.
Large-scale anti-Japanese protests took place in China in 2012 in reaction to Japan's move to nationalise the disputed islands. The protests turned into riots in a number of cities. Relations between the two nations have hit a historic low since diplomatic ties were resumed more than three decades ago. From state leaders’ public speeches to English op-eds authored by prominent diplomats, Beijing and Tokyo have been engaged in a game of diplomatic brinkmanship that has included fighter jets scrambling and ship collusion at sea.
But a constant trade of accusations towards each other will likely subside after a four-point agreement was reached between senior Chinese and Japanese officials on Friday, with both nations agreeing to establish a crisis management mechanism to put their relations back on track.
The two sides have agreed to “gradually resume political, diplomatic and security dialogue” through various multilateral and bilateral channels and to make efforts to build political mutual trust, according to Chinese state news agency Xinhua.
But the island dispute remains a flash point for stoking nationalism in both nations as well as a major stumbling block in achieving any substantial breakthrough in relations between the two nations.
In response to the bilateral agreement, many Chinese netizens have taken to social media to voice their doubts. Beijing-based journalist Liu Hua pointed out that the agreement has not addressed the territorial dispute:
I am now reposting the four-point agreements. It would be very interesting to compare the statements from China and Japan. From how they are worded, each and every point has been deliberated repeatedly. Take point three, the focus is the difference of opinions between China and Japan concerning “the intense situation” rather than focusing on “island territorial dispute” per se. By doing so, it has somehow avoided the island sovereignty issue.
Current affairs commentator Wang Chong, who is known for his nationalistic stand, said on his Weibo account:
Four-point agreement between China and Japan. I don't see any sign of Japan's compromise. I truly don't!
Baiyun Suixing Biji, a resident in northeast China, wasn't content as there haven't been any concrete agreements on the territorial and historical disputes:
It doesn't make much sense to make any association between it and the already existing disputes. The agreement has created enough room for any disobedience of the rules. If there is no recognition of the territorial dispute, there will be no guarantee to solving the historic problems. It's would be a diplomatic loss to say yes to a formal meeting and give up the bottom line for such a vague and fake agreement. It's no different than slapping its own face. I am speechless.
Xu Xiangyun, a university deputy chair in Jiangxi province, believed that the agreement is meant to fool China:
Japan has bought the Diaoyu Islands, their top leaders have visited the Yasukuni Shrine [to mourn the soldiers who died in the Second World War] and denied their invasion in history. They have re-enacted the right to collective self-defense and keep criticizing China around the globe. Now Shinzō Abe wants to increase his popularity and rescue the domestic economy, he is fooling China again. How can people believe that?
I feel that Sino-Japanese relations will not suddenly become good, we will have to see what kind of attitude that the US, the big boss, holds.