An important outcome of Beijing and Tokyo’s just concluded fourth high-level political talks was that both underscored the need to approach the other as a potential partner rather than a threat.
Amid their seemingly endless impasse, the fact that both sides have taken note of the damaging potential of mutual distrust and aspire to improve bilateral relations represents a step toward breaking the deadlock.
Many are accustomed to attributing the troubled bilateral ties to Japan’s inability to adapt to the new reality of a rising China. But Beijing, too, is in the process trying to figure out what is the best approach to its growing impacts on regional and global affairs and outside perceptions of them. In that sense, how Beijing and Tokyo see and approach each other will to a great extent determine the geopolitical landscape of Northeast Asia, if not the entire Asia-Pacific.
As everybody knows, there is a long shadow of history that prevents the countries from getting really close, especially under the current leadership in Japan which is unwilling to let the past rest in peace. But that does not mean there is no way out.
The generally warm relationship between Beijing and Tokyo since the normalisation of diplomatic ties, which existed until a few years ago, is telling proof that there are ways to prevent the spectre of the past from haunting ties. Even if the past cannot be completely laid to rest, properly managing divergences may at least release some positive energy to restore some warmth to bilateral ties.
But although Beijing and Tokyo claim a shared commitment to regional peace and stability, as well as global good governance, there has been no indication they are willing or able to collaborate.
More often than not, Beijing has found Tokyo working against it, whether via Tokyo’s ongoing endeavours to resurrect the Trans-Pacific Partnership agreement or its putting what are regional maritime issues on a broader international agenda.
Relations between the two countries are at an important juncture. Previous experience shows ties can escape the dark shadow of the past with the joint effort of people with vision in both countries, and in so doing bring tangible benefits to the two nations and both peoples.
To build on the positive signals that emerged from Monday’s dialogue the two sides should remind themselves of their original intention for normalising ties and pursue the continuous enhancement of bilateral relations based on the four political documents and the four-point agreement reached between them. In this way, the outstanding challenges can be overcome and new opportunities seized.