President Barack Obama, his schedule consumed by negotiations aimed at ending a standoff with representatives from a former separatist region of the United States, will not be attending a summit of Asia-Pacific leaders this weekend. (Link)
While disappointing in its demonstration of the U.S.A.'s continued inability to behave like a modern state, Obama's cancellation does provides an opening for Prime Minister Abe Shinzo, who is attending the summit (Link). Abe has managed to have big time bilateral meetings with just about everybody else in Asia (by the end of the month, for example, he will have visited all 10 ASEAN countries - Link). However, he has heretofore had no luck at all securing bilateral face time with Chinese President Xi Jinping and South Korean President Park Geun Hye.
An Mr. Obama no-show gives Abe the opportunity to leave a message on Facebook for his so far less-than-engaging counterparts:
"Gee, President Xi and President Park, Barack's not attending. I will miss him too. Unless I am mistaken, this means you now have an open slot in your schedule. Can we meet? Unless, of course, you are looking forward to your chance at experiencing firsthand U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry's mesmerizing storytelling."
If meetings do not occur, it will not be due to intransigence on the Japanese side. The Abe folks are all for meetings, without preconditions.
If Abe and Xi do meet, however, a photo of the pair facing each other in chairs may be about all one can expect. While there are a myriad of ideas that Abe would love to bounce off of Xi, expecting a leader-to-leader talk without posturing and pretense may be too much.
From the vantage point of a perch in Tokyo, with all the biases that that entails, the chances for a personal "OK, the television crews are gone now, we can cut the crap" interaction with the present generation of Chinese leaders seems remote.
The nature of the game has changed. In the past, the official titles of the top leaders of China were adjuncts to who they were, after-the-fact official recognitions of real power, the locus of which was elsewhere -- but about which no one could plead ignorance. With Xi and his generation, however, the office is who they are. There is little leeway to get around "the official position" in private talks -- because the official position is that which the leaders must cling to in order to stay leaders. Indeed, who Xi is -- a princeling so in with the in crowd that he was able to marry one of China's superstar singers -- is precisely what Xi would probably want everyone to forget.
So while it would be great for Abe to have a chance to sit down with Xi and Park sometime in the next few days (I have likened those excusing the dearth of high-level Sino-Japanese and South Korean-Japanese contacts since Abe became PM to a coroner telling a police officer, "Well, except for the bullet in the brain and other one in the heart, this guy's in great shape!") breakthroughs should probably not be on anyone's wish list.