Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe met with Chinese President Xi Jinping at the sidelines of a conference in Jakarta today for the second time in the past half year (their first-ever meeting was last December). This meeting may have come as something of surprise, given the context; earlier this week, he had sent an offering to a controversial Tokyo shrine commemorating Japan’s war dead, which China and South Korea view as provocative. Abe’s speech at the conference also raised eyebrows; he offered regrets for Japan’s actions in World War II, but without conceding an outright apology.
Abe’s display of commitment to Japanese militarism and nationalism isn’t just rhetorical, either. The Prime Minister will be sending a new law to parliament next month, which includes a provision for Tokyo to back up the U.S. in a U.S.-China conflict in the South China Sea (should one occur). As one expert in Japan’s Liberal Democratic party said: “If the Philippines were to clash with China, they would send an SOS to their ally the U.S…. If the U.S. military were then to seek assistance from the Self Defense Forces, the question then becomes what Japan can do.”
China, for its part, is steadily ramping up its land-reclamation activities in its surrounding seas. Recent satellite photos show a nearly-completed runway in the Spratly Island chain long enough to accommodate military aircraft. And Beijing is spouting off—literally—against its neighbors and rivals again; the Chinese coast guard turned a water cannon on Filipino fishing boats this week, in an incident that coincided suspiciously with joint drills between U.S. and Filipino troops. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman was unapologetic at a press briefing:
“Recently, many Philippine fishing boats disobeyed China’s administration and gathered illegally in Huangyan Island waters, violating China’s sovereignty and maritime rights and interests… We demand that the Philippine side increase its education and control of its fishermen, and cease all behavior that violates China’s sovereignty and rights and interests.”
Not exactly the peaceable behavior that China seemed to promise months ago, but rather a definite return to form.
At best, Xi and Abe’s Jakarta meeting signals that Asia’s two greatest powers are keeping the (official) temperature of their relationship warmer than, say, it was early last year. But anyone who thinks this friendliness is much more than a front isn’t paying attention. The standoff between China and its neighbors (and behind many of them, the U.S.) is still the most dangerous conflict in the world—and the most determinative of the economic, military, and geopolitical challenges of the future.