Old enmities die hard. How much hostility can be expressed through a handshake was demonstrated last month when President Xi Jinping of China met Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan. The two leaders had never met before, relations having been at freezing point for years, and the handshake was billed as an historic landmark. Yet Mr Xi contrived to turn the hoped-for reconciliation into public humiliation. He kept Mr Abe waiting; he ignored his guest’s words of greeting, remaining tight-lipped; and when he turned to face the cameras, Mr Xi revealed a face that deserved to win a gold medal for competitive grimacing.
Does the Sino-Japanese thaw matter? Yes, it does. China, the capitalist-Communist chimera, remains Red in tooth and claw. Japan is no longer the land of the rising sun, but is proud of its democracy and still the third largest global economy. China nurses scars left by Japanese atrocities committed almost eight decades ago; Japan fears Chinese claims on some of its islands and blames Beijing for failing to restrain North Korean belligerence. Neither leader can afford to lose face; neither has the confidence to be magnanimous. No other relationship between two great powers is quite so toxic.
Ever since Ruth Benedict’s 1946 study of Japan, The Chrysanthemum and the Sword, many anthropologists have categorised Japanese society as a “shame culture”, in contrast to Western “guilt cultures”. Benedict’s book became a sudden bestseller in China a decade ago when relations with Japan deteriorated. But Mr Xi knew exactly how to humiliate Mr Abe because he too comes from a shame culture.
The danger here is that neither side will know how to climb down. Indeed, a huge Chinese naval, military and aerial build-up is proceeding apace, while Japan too has begun to rearm, abandoning its post-war pacifism. Now that the two governments are at least talking, has the prospect of conflict receded?
Not if the body language of the two leaders is anything to go by. It is clear that Mr Xi has no desire to spare his Japanese counterpart. His icy reception was meant personally: Mr Abe regularly visits the Yatsumi shrine to pay his respects to the Japanese war dead, which in Chinese eyes makes him an apologist for the war crimes of his ancestors.
The handshake is a modern Western gesture, a display of mutual cordiality; the bow, a more emotionally neutral form of greeting that involves no physical contact, is traditional in both China and Japan. Perhaps Mr Xi, who has the whip hand, would really like Mr Abe to kowtow: that is, to prostrate himself and beg for forgiveness. That is not going to happen; nor should it. Japan remains a staunch ally of the West, while China is still sowing the teeth of the Maoist dragon. But if the two leaders are serious about breaking the ice, next time they should dispense with the handshakes and bow instead.