The Asian Paradox

SEOUL – Given that the 21 members of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum account for some 54% of global GDP and about 44% of world trade, the agenda for this month’s APEC summit should be drawing much global attention. Yet the only issue in which anyone seems interested is whether or not Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet on the sidelines, and, if they do, whether a substantive discussion to ease bilateral tensions will take place.

Of course, this is not altogether unreasonable, given the two countries’ importance in shaping East Asia’s future. Indeed, the uncertainty about whether two of APEC’s key leaders will even speak to each other highlights the grim reality of Asian international relations today. The supposed “Asian century” is being thwarted by a paradox: deep economic interdependence has done nothing to alleviate strategic mistrust.

Given the recent deterioration of Sino-Japanese relations – a decline that accelerated in 2012, when Japan purchased the disputed Senkaku Islands (Diaoyu Islands in Chinese) from their private owner to prevent Japanese nationalists from taking control of them – the mere fact that Abe will attend the summit is a major step. A meeting between Abe and Xi – their first since either came to power – would offer concrete grounds for hope.

The Japanese government has made significant diplomatic efforts to orchestrate a meeting, with former Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda visiting Beijing in July to try to ease tensions. According to some media reports, in order to secure China’s agreement to participate in a meeting during the APEC summit, Abe even agreed to acknowledge that Japan’s claim to the Senkaku Islands is disputed.