Regional summits this week in Indonesia became a missed opportunity for Japanese and Chinese leaders to sit down for full-fledged bilateral talks, with the two sides instead ending up exposing their deep rift over Japan's release of treated radioactive water from the crippled Fukushima nuclear power plant.
While Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Chinese Premier Li Qiang had a brief exchange on Wednesday, the water issue may have a lasting impact on the relations between the two Asian powers, presenting challenges to Tokyo's efforts to stabilize relations already strained by Beijing's growing military assertiveness.
Benoit Hardy-Chartrand, an adjunct professor at Temple University Japan Campus, called the absence of an official Kishida-Li meeting a "setback, given both sides' apparent desire to arrange it," prior to the water release.
The series of summits related to the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in the Indonesian capital of Jakarta marked the first multilateral event attended by both Japanese and Chinese leaders since the controversial wastewater release from the Fukushima Daiichi plant into the Pacific Ocean commenced on Aug. 24.
According to diplomatic sources, Japan had explored the possibility of an official bilateral meeting between the two until the last minute, secretly dispatching a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official to China for arrangements. But Beijing's reaction had been negative.
Hardy-Chartrand, who specializes in East Asian geopolitics and security, warned of the "negative consequences on stability" of Japan-China ties stemming from a "diplomatic winter," recalling "a difficult and unstable period" when Junichiro Koizumi was Japan's prime minister for about five years until 2006.
Koizumi angered China through his repeated visits to the Yasukuni Shrine in Tokyo, which many in Asia see as a symbol of Japanese past militarism, leading Beijing to eventually boycott any top-level talks until he was succeeded by Shinzo Abe. Mutual visits between the leaders also did not take place for most of Koizumi's term.
That time serves "as a vivid illustration of the risks of failing to maintain dialogue," Hardy-Chartrand said, noting that such a situation could "make it harder to resolve crises as they arise."
The significance of dialogue between the world's second- and third-largest economies is only increasing as the security environment surrounding Japan is getting more severe.
Repeated intrusions by Chinese ships into Japanese waters around the Tokyo-controlled Senkaku Islands, which Beijing claims, continue in the East China Sea. Additionally, China's joint military activities with Russia near Japan are increasing in frequency as Beijing and Moscow draw closer amid Russia's war in Ukraine.
Japan has also become more vocal in its concerns over China's growing pressure on Taiwan, a self-ruled democratic island that Beijing regards as a breakaway province to be reunified with the mainland, by force if necessary.
As this year marks the 45th anniversary of the signing and enactment of the Japan-China Treaty of Peace and Friendship, Kishida is aiming for a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in November. As part of the preparations, a visit to China by the head of Komeito, the junior coalition partner of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party, in August had been planned, as well as talks with Li on the fringes of the summits in Indonesia.
Kishida last met with Xi in November in Bangkok on the sidelines of an Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation forum gathering, which was the two countries' first summit in three years.
But Kishida's plans to improve ties have apparently hit a snag as a spat over the Fukushima water release quickly escalated, with China introducing a blanket ban on Japanese seafood imports and anti-Japan sentiment growing among the Chinese public. Komeito chief Natsuo Yamaguchi postponed his planned visit to China.
During a meeting involving ASEAN, Japan, China and South Korea on Wednesday, Kishida criticized Beijing's comprehensive seafood ban as "conspicuous," while Li insisted that the disposal of "nuclear-contaminated water" has created concerns about the marine environment and people's health.
The water issue was also a topic of discussion during brief exchanges between Kishida and Li that took place ahead of the "ASEAN Plus Three" summit, with the Japanese prime minister demanding China scrap the import ban, according to the Japanese Foreign Ministry.
A Japanese government official said earlier that a full-fledged summit would be difficult to realize unless China feels "positive things" can be discussed.
Madoka Fukuda, a Hosei University professor with expertise in international politics in East Asia and Chinese diplomacy, was pessimistic about a swift removal of China's import restrictions.
"The import ban will not be easily lifted, given that it is an extension of the Chinese government's criticisms and protests against the water release," she said.
The bilateral confrontation could drag on for an extended period, possibly making it hard for the two countries to hold high-level meetings, the professor also said.
The possibility of Tokyo filing a complaint to the World Trade Organization to counter Beijing's suspension of seafood imports could further complicate the dispute.
Some conservative members of the LDP, led by Kishida as its president, have called for the tough action, but another Japanese government official has cautioned that such a move might provide China with an "excuse" to prolong the dispute.
Meanwhile, Tsuyoshi Kawase, a professor of international economic law at Sophia University, said China may be looking for the right timing to "back down after having held up its fists."
Beijing might be aware that a protracted dispute would risk bringing "unfavorable outcomes," such as by prompting Japanese companies to shy away from doing business with the neighboring economic powerhouse, he said.