U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, center, listens during a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping inside the Great Hall of the People on Wednesday in Beijing. (Lintao Zhang/AP)

Vice President Biden urged Japan and China last week to set up “effective channels of communication” to avoid a dangerous escalation in their increasingly fraught dispute over maritime territory. But the estrangement between the Asian powers is so deep they are barely talking.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping, both in office for roughly a year, have spoken just once — for a matter of minutes. The Japanese and Chinese foreign ministers haven’t held formal talks in 14 months. There is zero contact between their coast guards and militaries.

“There used to be so many channels” of communication, said a senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss sensitive information. “But that has all but stopped.”

The decline in high-level contact, the most pronounced since Japan and China normalized relations 41 years ago, points to fundamental shifts in both countries that have made it harder for diplomats to control and solve problems. In particular, hardening nationalism in China and Japan has reduced the ability of officials to appear conciliatory. Japanese Foreign Ministry officers who appear to be sympathetic to China have been largely sidelined over the last 12 years, according to two former senior-level officials who handled Asian affairs.

Several current and former Japanese diplomats emphasized that both sides are responsible for the current freeze. China, they say, appears to increasingly value demonstrating its military strength, even at the risk of causing discord. The Chinese Foreign Ministry — the one official channel open to Japan — has little sway with members of China’s more powerful military and Politburo.

Japanese officials say it is increasingly difficult to talk to the Chinese decision-makers, even through the secretive back channels that were once a staple of relations. The last such channel, between Zeng Qinghong, a former member of the Politburo Standing Committee, and Hiromu Nonaka, a powerful figure in Japan’s largest political party, disappeared when Zeng retired in 2008, according to an April report on Japan-China relations by the International Crisis Group.

In recent months, even the most basic attempts at agreement have fallen apart. Officials on both sides say they’re interested in dialogue, but China says it should only happen after Japan acknowledges that the uninhabited rocks it controls in the East China Sea are indeed disputed. Japanese officials say their claim on the rocks is so incontrovertible that no dispute exists. The feud over the rocky islands — known in Japan as the Senkaku Islands and in China as the Diaoyu Islands — escalated after China declared an “air defense identification zone” over them last month.

“The situation now is that both sides are embroiled in conflicts, and they pretty much insist on doing things their own way,” said Liang Yunxiang, a specialist in China-Japan relations at Peking University’s School of International Studies.

A troubled history

Relations between Beijing and Tokyo have long been fraught, due to the memories in China of Japan’s brutal invasion and occupation beginning in the 1930s. When Japan and China established diplomatic ties in 1972, the countries’ leaders, Mao Zedong and Kakuei Tanaka, tried to bury much of the resentment. Mao suggested that both sides put off dealing with territorial disputes. China’s Foreign Ministry said Japan’s friendship should be welcomed, because the “time had changed.”

Within Japan’s Foreign Ministry, relations were largely managed by a group known as the “China School” — officers trained for years in the Chinese language, who also gained vast knowledge of Chinese political history.

One of their biggest jobs was crisis prevention, said Kunihiko Makita, one of the China School members and a retired high-ranking official. They worked quietly to prevent activist landings on disputed islands and revisions of history textbooks that would have downplayed Japan’s responsibility for World War II atrocities. They also opposed the idea of Japanese prime ministers visiting Yasukuni Shrine, a controversial Shinto site that honors 14 war criminals among its war dead.

“I regard the relationship as a minefield,” Makita said. “If you are careless, you hit a mine and it explodes. The responsibility for Japanese Foreign Ministry officers is to make sure mines don’t explode.”

But over the past two decades, Makita said, officers who were considered China specialists have increasingly been attacked by Japan’s right wing. Much of that, he said, is a result of China’s behavior: Its increased military spending and patrolling of the waters around it has swung public sentiment. Nine in 10 Japanese people now view China negatively.

Since the early 2000s, Makita and another former senior official said, China School officers have been less likely to get top positions, leading to a more hard-line policy toward Beijing.

Since 2001, Japan’s Asian and Oceanian Affairs Bureau has been run by non-China specialists. Some of Japan’s ambassadors to China have also been non-China specialists, including the current one, Masato Kitera, a member of the Foreign Ministry’s French School.

“Gradually, the China School has started to have a bad connotation, as making too many compromises,” said the other former senior Foreign Ministry official, who is not a China School member and requested anonymity in order to speak about a sensitive topic. “I think there was an effort to exclude them from decision-making on China. The background is clearly [that] China rises rapidly, and there’s a growing anti-China feeling. Politicians figure the China School is not appropriate to represent Japan.”

A current high-level official in the Foreign Ministry says it is “too simplified” to suggest that China School officers have been phased out. Rather, China’s power has grown so much that it can no longer be handled with just “one taste” or opinion, he said. Japan’s Foreign Ministry, he noted, has always shuffled its officers from region to region, no matter their original area of expertise.

Inflamed tensions

The poor communication between China and Japan has already proved costly, enabling two incidents that helped ratchet up maritime tensions.

After a Chinese trawler captain in 2010 rammed two Japanese coast guard vessels, Japan charged the captain criminally and held him for two weeks, prompting a diplomatic standoff with a furious Beijing. China temporarily cut off the shipment of rare earth metals used in Japanese high-tech products and suspended many bilateral exchanges. Many Japanese analysts say the detention of the captain was a mistake, because it permitted China to become more aggressive toward Japan.

Two years later, Japan purchased several of the contested East China Sea islands from a private landowner. The purchase was an attempt to prevent the islands from falling into the hands of former Tokyo governor Shintaro Ishihara, a nationalist, but Japan’s central government again underestimated the Chinese backlash.

While considering the purchase, Japan ignored the advice of its then-ambassador to China, Uichiro Niwa, who warned it could spark a crisis. At the time, Niwa faced broad criticism for the comments, and some Japanese parliament members called for his firing. Niwa was replaced months later.

In remarks earlier this year at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan, Niwa said Japan had “misread” the Chinese response, and added that Beijing viewed the purchase as an “insult.”

“If we were a married couple, we could have divorced. But that isn’t an option,” Niwa said. “We will be neighbors [for good] and whether we like it or not.”

Yuki Oda in Tokyo and Guo Chen in Beijing contributed to this report.