The Japanese government has no shortage of issues to worry about — strengthening a faltering economic recovery and trying to persuade a skeptical public to accept a return to nuclear power. But even with all that, the country’s leaders are devoting their energy to a seemingly small gesture: a hoped-for handshake.
The gesture has outsized importance because of the two men who would be joining hands: Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and President Xi Jinping of China, the tough-minded leaders of Asia’s two biggest economies who have circled each other warily for almost two years. The Japanese hope the greeting, and a possible short meeting to follow, would be the start of repairing relations that have taken a pummeling over disputed islands as well as disagreements over the handling of Japan’s wartime history.
That hope has led to weeks of delicate diplomatic maneuverings, with small gestures parsed for deeper meaning. Japanese officials have begun expressing optimism that the meeting — the first since the men took power — would take place next month on the sidelines of a regional economic summit in Beijing.
Among the promising signs cited by the Japanese side: a recent visit to Tokyo by the daughter of a former Chinese leader who not only met with Mr. Abe, but also sat with him to watch a performance by a visiting Chinese dance troupe.
The final negotiations are still underway, so it is difficult to tell if the behind-the-scenes negotiations and emissaries shuttling between China and Japan are about to lead to a breakthrough as the Japanese officials suggest. But political analysts in Japan and abroad said both nations appeared to share a growing recognition that they had too much to lose, both economically and politically, if they did not find some way to get along.
Both leaders have come under increasing pressure to contain the damage to their nations’ large economic ties. China’s Commerce Ministry has reported that Japanese direct investment in China dropped by nearly half in the first six months of this year from the year before. And sales of Japanese autos and other products in China are still down, although exports to China’s coveted market have recovered somewhat after a steep drop in the first half of last year brought on by the island dispute.
Experts say the two leaders are also loath to be seen as the bad guy in the region or in Washington as they battle each other for influence in Asia.
With neither country willing to yield over the islands, some analysts now speak of a new status quo, in which China and Japan essentially agree to disagree while returning to business as usual in other areas.
In that case, they said, the standoff could become a permanent feature of the security landscape, with both countries continuing to send ships there to make the point that they are in control, while also taking steps to prevent any escalation.
“Japan and China are seeking a new equilibrium,” said Narushige Michishita, director of the Security and International Studies Program at the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies in Tokyo. “The best we can do now is to keep playing this game, but at a lower level, and to find ways to be less confrontational.”
Since Mr. Abe took office in December 2012, Mr. Xi has refused to meet the Japanese leader, an outspoken nationalist whom many in China suspect wants to deny World War II atrocities committed by invading Japanese troops. As a precondition for more substantial talks, some Chinese officials have suggested that Mr. Abe show sincerity by promising not to continue visiting Yasukuni, a Tokyo shrine to Japan’s war dead that many Chinese see as a symbol of Japan’s lack of repentance.
On Friday, China protested after Mr. Abe sent an offering of a potted plant to Yasukuni to mark an autumn festival, though Japanese officials had said they felt the offering would not affect the negotiations as Mr. Abe did not go in person.
However, the biggest sticking point in the negotiations over a meet-and-greet has been how to handle the tense, two-year standoff over the disputed islands in the East China Sea, known as the Senkaku in Japanese and Diaoyu in China. The countries have been locked in an almost Cold War-style face-off since the purchase of the islands by Mr. Abe’s predecessor in mid-2012, a move the government said was intended to prevent them from falling under the control of Japanese ultranationalists.
Outraged by what it saw as a unilateral move to strengthen Japanese control over islands that it also claims, China began dispatching paramilitary ships to waters near the uninhabited islands and declared an air-defense zone above the islands, setting off an international uproar when it demanded all aircraft entering the area submit flight plans to Chinese authorities.
For his part, Mr. Abe has refused to back down, expanding the flotilla of Japanese Coast Guard ships that chase the Chinese vessels in games of cat and mouse near the islands. Japan has also stepped up its patrols in China’s newly claimed air-defense zone, a snub that provoked some close encounters between Japanese planes and Chinese fighter jets.
China has been demanding that Japan recognize that the islands are in dispute, something that Japan has so far refused to do for fear of opening the door to further concessions.
On Friday, the coveted handshake between Mr. Abe and Mr. Xi seemed to move a step closer to reality as Japan’s Kyodo News agency reported Mr. Abe had shaken hands with China’s No. 2 leader, Prime Minister Li Keqiang, at a dinner for Asian and European leaders in Milan. And last weekend, a top Japanese diplomat visited Beijing in what the Japanese news media said was a trip aimed at negotiating the handshake.
The diplomatic efforts to bring together Mr. Abe and Mr. Xi began in July, when Yasuo Fukuda, a former Japanese prime minister, was allowed to meet Mr. Xi. Mr. Fukuda handed the Chinese leader a letter from Mr. Abe, and first proposed the meeting between the two leaders during the coming Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting.
“A month ago, I would have told you a meeting was not likely,” said one high-level Japanese official who spoke on the condition of anonymity. “Now, I’d say both countries have come around to seeing it as in their interests.”
A Chinese analyst, Wu Xinbo, executive dean of the Institute of International Studies at Fudan University in Shanghai, was more equivocal: “If we see Abe is serious about improving relations with China and taking a more serious and responsible attitude towards the history issue, then that will lead to an improvement in bilateral relations.”