Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe will meet Chinese President Xi Jinping on the sidelines of an Asia-Africa summit in Indonesia on Wednesday, a Japanese government official said, the latest sign of a thaw in relations between the Asian rivals.
However, speaking at the summit ahead of the expected meeting, Abe warned powerful nations against imposing on the weak, an implicit reference to China. He also made an allusion to Tokyo’s remorse in the past over World War Two without issuing a fresh apology.
Abe’s comments made it an awkward diplomatic backdrop for the expected meeting with Xi. But a Japanese official said ahead of Abe’s address that the two leaders would meet later in the day. China’s foreign ministry did not immediately respond to an e-mailed request for comment.
“The country (China) is shifting to a policy of stressing that it hopes for stable relations with its neighbors,” said Hiroko Maeda, a research fellow at the PHP Institute in Tokyo.
Tensions between Asia’s two biggest economies have flared in recent years due to feuds over wartime history as well as territorial rows and regional rivalry. Memories of Japan’s past military aggression run deep in China and Beijing has repeatedly urged Japan to face up to history.
But a meeting on Wednesday between the two leaders could promote a cautious rapprochement that began when Abe and Xi met at a summit in Beijing late last year.
“We should never allow to go unchecked the use of force by the mightier to twist the weaker around,” Abe said at the summit marking the 60th anniversary of the Bandung Conference, a meeting of Asian and African leaders opposed to colonialism.
“The wisdom of our forefathers in Bandung was that the rule of law should protect the dignity of sovereign nations, be they large or small,” Abe said, speaking after Xi had addressed the conference.
China is locked in territorial rows with several smaller countries in the South China Sea while Japan has a separate feud over islets in the East China Sea.
Abe often warns against the use of force to change the status quo and says the rule of law should prevail – both seen as implicit criticism of China’s assertiveness.
Abe’s stance on Japan’s wartime past is especially sensitive this year, when he plans to issue a statement marking the 70th anniversary of the end of World War Two.
He has said that while he will uphold past apologies including a 1995 landmark statement by then-premier Tomiichi Murayama, he wants to issue forward-looking remarks in his own words, sparking concern he wants to water down past apologies.
Abe said in his Jakarta speech that Japan had, “with feelings of deep remorse over the past war”, pledged to adhere to principles affirmed at the first Bandung Conference, including refraining from the use of force and settling international disputes by peaceful means.
As the Jakarta conference got underway, Indonesian President Joko Widodo was flanked by Xi and Abe for a group leaders’ photo. The two remained on either side of Widodo when they sat and watched an Indonesian traditional dance troupe perform.
Abe’s speech in Jakarta will be followed by a speech to the U.S. Congress next week and a statement in August marking the anniversary of the end of World War Two.