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With Tensions Rising In East China Sea, Xi-Abe Talks At G20 Are Critical

31/08/2016 6:18 PM IST | Updated 31/08/2016 6:22 PM IST
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Amidst heightened tensions in the East China Sea, diplomatic attempts to reach a settlement between China and Japan have seemingly failed. China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi delayed his trip to Tokyo for the Trilateral Foreign Minsters' Meeting among China, Japan and South Korea owing to "no agreement on how to handle Diaoyu Islands dispute." This delay comes at a critical juncture of the sovereignty row between China and Japan over the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. China also recently cancelled the official visit of Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Kong Xuanyou's to Japan; this came after Japan's protests over China's increasing military posture in the disputed islands. The consecutive cancellations of high-level meets by Beijing imply a serious setback in the bilateral ties between China and Japan. So, what are the repercussions of these diplomatic call-offs?

The successive cancellations of the foreign ministerial meetings, which are meant to pave the way for Xi-Abe Talks, reflect the uneasiness and reluctance in the present relationship...

The downturn in Sino-Japanese diplomatic ties makes the much-anticipated meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during the upcoming G20 Leaders Meeting in Hangzhou in September more crucial than ever. The fragile rapprochement after Xi and Abe's first meeting in 2014 at the APEC Summit has been severely affected by territorial disputes and contentions over Japan's past aggression. In addition, a confrontation is also not in the rational calculus for either Xi, who is pushing for reforms to sustain the stability in Chinas growth, or Abe, who is making all efforts to recover Japan's economic stature.

But the successive cancellations of the foreign ministerial meetings, which are meant to pave the way for Xi-Abe Talks, reflect the uneasiness and reluctance in the present relationship and also do not bode well for future dialogues between the two parties. In fact, the failures of the talks in the run-up to the G20 meet have diminished the prospects of a face-to-face Xi-Abe dialogue, which is something that may have severe ramifications for the future stability in Sino-Japanese relations.

The tensions between China and Japan in the East China Sea are on the uptick, bringing the relationship to one of its lowest points. China has upped the ante by its growing naval activism through increased incursions by coast guard vessels and jet fighters in surrounding waters and airspace, compounded by Japan's heightened defensive posture. In 2015, Chinese incursions into Japan's airspace prompted a record-high 571 fighter scrambles, elevating Japanese concerns. Since December 2015, China has stepped up its militarization of the area by deploying Chinese navy vessels at various points in the contiguous zone around the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. In response, Japan has switched on a radar station in the East China Sea, giving it a permanent intelligence gathering post close to Taiwan and the disputed islands. Japan has furthermore deployed 12 coastguard vessels, successively increasing its fleet presence against China's upped ante. China has stepped up the pressure by dispatching a Jiangkai-1 class frigate to patrol for the first time, followed by another episode of intrusion by a Dongdiao-class reconnaissance ship that entered the contiguous zone of the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands. It has also held live-fire navy drills in the East China Sea.

Given the increasing climate of hostility, the need of the hour is to build confidence through diplomatic talks to quell the risks of unnecessary military confrontation.

At this point, what makes matters worse is the International Arbitral Tribunal on the South China Sea. It rejected China's claims to the South China Sea based on the "nine-dash line" map and specified that it has "no legal basis" and also pointed that Beijing's "historic rights" do not comply to the UNCLOS and that, there is "no evidence that China had historically exercised exclusive control over the waters or their resources." Against this invalidation of its claims, and with its stakes facing a threat in the East China Sea, China has revamped its military posture against Japan.

Given the increasing climate of hostility, the need of the hour is to build confidence through diplomatic talks to quell the risks of unnecessary military confrontation. At this point, since there is no consensus on the crisis mechanism, the only way to de-escalate the tensions is through conducting high-level dialogue between China and Japan. With no quick fix to the problem, the Xi-Abe Talks on the sidelines of G20 hold greater significance than ever before.

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