World

Awkward handshake as Abe and Xi hold breakthrough meeting for China-Japan ties

Beijing: Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have held formal talks for the first time, in a meeting seen as a major breakthrough in the potential thawing of tensions between Asia's two largest economies.

The frosty relations between the two countries had veered close to open conflict in the two years since both leaders took office, with historical tensions exacerbated by an intensifying territorial dispute in the East China Sea.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (left) and Chinese President Xi Jinping shake hands. Photo: Getty Images

The question of whether the two leaders would hold talks, or even shake hands, had been a significant talking point of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) meetings, which are being held in Beijing. When they did meet on Monday, the two leaders shook hands politely, but the body language between the pair reflected the reality that any rapprochement was very much in its infancy.

But that this was an official meeting – rather than a mere handshake or exchange of greetings in a group setting – was seen as a significant achievement, as well as a diplomatic victory for Mr Abe, who has long sought an audience with Mr Xi and initiated the encounter.

Shinzo Abe and an aide wait for Xi Jinping's arrival at Beijing's Great Hall of the People.
Shinzo Abe and an aide wait for Xi Jinping's arrival at Beijing's Great Hall of the People. Photo: AFP

"We had continued quiet efforts to use the opportunity of the APEC summit to start a dialogue between the two leaders," Mr Abe told reporters shortly after the meeting, which ran for about half an hour. "That led to the realisation of my meeting with President Xi Jinping."

Mr Abe said he believed the meeting was a "first step toward improving our relationship".

The meeting followed a surprise announcement from the two governments on Friday that they would "gradually" resume diplomatic, political and security dialogue, and to "acknowledge their differences" with respect to their dispute in the East China Sea over a chain of islands known in Japan as the Senkaku and in China as Diaoyu.

In comments carried by China's official Xinhua news agency, Mr Xi told Mr Abe that China hoped Japan would "follow the path of peaceful development" and "adopt prudent military and security policies" – an apparent reference to increased military spending by Tokyo, seen by Beijing as a departure from its postwar pacifism and a move to constrain China's own military and strategic rise.

Mr Abe said the two countries will establish an emergency mechanism to prevent maritime accidents in the East China Sea. Several confrontations and near misses have led to fears that a miscalculation from either side could lead to open conflict. News of the meeting was welcomed by foreign leaders, including US President Barack Obama and  Foreign Minister Julie Bishop.

"I am aware that our neighbours in Asia and many countries beyond had been hoping to see dialogue between Japanese and Chinese leaders," Mr Abe said. "We were able to respond to such wishes and begin taking steps toward repairing our ties."