TOKYO — Trying to turn over a new leaf with China, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe tempered his usual criticism of Beijing’s efforts to extend its power into the South China Sea during a string of international conferences this month.
In return, he got what was perhaps his biggest takeaway from the recent Asian summits — assurances that Chinese Premier Xi Jinping shares a goal of improving bilateral ties.
At the East Asia Summit in Manila on Tuesday, Abe said that any disputes in the South China Sea must be resolved peacefully, based on international law. But, with Chinese Premier Li Keqiang listening, Japan’s leader also welcomed moves between Beijing and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations toward creating a legally binding code of conduct in the waters.
Voices at the meeting called for demilitarization and restraint in the South China Sea, according to a Japanese government source. But almost none criticized China by name or mentioned the 2016 international tribunal ruling that rejected its maritime claims there. This partly reflects the North Korean threat’s move to the top of the agenda.
At last year’s summit in Laos, Japan and the U.S. urged China to abide by the ruling, issued just months earlier, which was met with fierce pushback from Beijing. ASEAN members were sharply divided as well.
Abe took a noticeably softer stance on the issue this year to avoid spoiling a modest Sino-Japanese rapprochement. At a news conference Tuesday, he called his recent meetings with Xi and Li “a new beginning for Japan-China relations.” Abe is hoping next year to visit China and have Xi visit Japan, to mark the 40th anniversary of a bilateral peace treaty.
The prime minister now faces a difficult balancing act between his values-based diplomacy, which emphasizes principles like the rule of law, and practical considerations for advancing ties with China. “If he takes too much of a practical bent, he could face criticism that he is going back on his focus on values,” a government source said.