10/08/2010, 00.00

Sideline “chat” to mend ties between China and Japan

by Pino Cazzaniga
This the official definition of a meeting between Wen Jiabao and Naoto Kan ending the diplomatic row that erupted in the wake of Japan’s detention of a Chinese fishing vessel. In reality, the talks are the result of intense political and diplomatic activity aimed at the resumption of the "strategic relationship for mutual benefit."

Tokyo (AsiaNews) – The intense diplomatic activity that surrounded the seemingly improvised meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on October 4 has become clear. A 25 minute meeting during which the two leaders agreed to resume high level talks after a bitter dispute between the two nations, which lasted about a month.

The encounter took place in the Royal Palace in Brussels on the sidelines of the ASEM conference (Asia-Europe Meeting) and at behest of Chinese diplomacy, was deliberately defined a "chat", because neither side wanted to give it the status the official meeting.

Kan, according to The Japan Times, said that the meeting was a spontaneous decision when he and Wen found themselves walking side by side along the corridor of the building where the conference had just ended. But here too diplomacy is being used.

A stormy September

Perhaps the conversation will be remembered as the most singular event of the ASEM in Brussels, because it was a catalyst in mending ties between the two Pacific powers caused by a crisis that lasted for about a month.

The facts are well known: September 8, the Japanese Coast Guard arrested a Chinese ships captain, Zhan Qixion off the Senkaku Islands. Released on the 25, he was sent back home without being formally charged. The Chinese foreign minister, who at the time of the captain’s arrest, had called for his immediate and unconditional release, on his release went on to demand an apology and compensation. Kan, who had been informed of the issue while he was in New York to attend UN General Assembly, rejected the demand, because the matter had taken place off the Senkaku Islands, over which Japan claims sovereignty.

The Chinese government rebutted with a series of tough measures in the form of economic blackmail and the suspension of high-level diplomatic relations.

The legacy of the past

Why did such an insignificant episode cause such a serious diplomatic rift between the two nations, threatening to destroy a mutually beneficial strategic relationship that had been embryonically established with so much effort and wisdom? We will attempt to answer this question, based on the analysis of Kazuo Ogoura, professor of political science at Aoyama Gakuin University in Tokyo. According Ogoura, the brawl between Japan and China over the Senkaku Islands, is territorial but only on the surface. In reality it is much deeper and wider. The recent history and the political vision of the two peoples are different. While the Japanese approached the matter from a legal standpoint, the Chinese tended to regard the incident as a political provocation by the Japanese. According to the scholar, in China it is still commonly held that Japan retains its militaristic tendencies and is ready to act aggressively when the opportunity presents itself. This means that many Chinese people like it or not, maintain an image of Japan based on the memories of the war. The researcher believes that there are at least two reasons underlying this persistent anti-Japan sentiment. One is that, fundamentally, the legitimacy of the communist government of China, as also recalled in the national anthem, is based on the historical fact that it freed China from Japanese aggression and subsequent miseries. The second reason for China’s persistently negative view of Japan is that the Chinese authorities are not in a position to appreciate the democratic process that Japan has pursued since the Second World War, while the political structure of China leaves a lot to be desired in terms of democracy.

The fruit of Kan’s decisive and dogged approach

On hearing of the captain’s release the Japanese prime minister immediately took pains to assure the media that it was not politically motivated: the three institutional powers in a democracy are independent. But the issue was neither resolved nor eased because the rift with China remained large. Zhan was given a hero’s welcome by government officials on his return to China's Hebei Province.

In New York, Kan he tried to approach Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, but to no avail. He had to return quickly to Tokyo for the opening of an extraordinary session of the Diet (parliament) that would last weeks. For this reason he was also to have renounced his attendance at the ASEM meeting, but given the continuing fractious situation with China, on Sept. 27 he decided to go to Brussels, where Wen was also present. He had to try another new approach. This time he was successful thanks to the discrete and fast work of party politicians managed to build a diplomatic and, apparently, effective bridge with China. The 25-minute encounter with Wen in the hallway of the ASEM building was only possible after a telephone conversation between the Japanese Secretary General of the Council of Ministers (Cabinet) Yoshito Sengoku,  in Tokyo, and the Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs of China Dai Bin Guo in Beijing. Sensing that the Chinese government wished to heal the rift, it was a Japanese politician who tried to become the bridge between the two governments, one Goshi Hosono (39), a member of the DPJ with has ties to high ranking Chinese figures. On April 27, Hosono flew to Beijing where a Chinese Foreign Ministry car was waiting for him at the airport was to accompany him to the Diaoyutai guesthouse. Here he held talks with officials of Chinese Foreign Ministry that lasted for about 7 hours. Returning to Tokyo on Sept. 30, he relayed everyting to the prime minister, who was able to leave for Brussels with the hope of meeting the Chinese leader.

A sideline chat of hope.

The Japanese prime minister did not go to Brussels just to "chat" with the Chinese premier, but also to place the issue in an international framework. In fact, Monday, October 4 Kan met separately with leaders of Australia, France, South Korea and Vietnam to obtain their understanding about the dispute with China.

Neither Khan nor Wen have mentioned the problem of the Senkaku islands in the two speeches before the assembly: evidently the "improvised" chat was not so improvised. But it was effective. Regarding the question of sovereignty over the Senkaku Islands, the two leaders have simply reiterated their belief. But they also agreed to consider the "undesirable" state of tension created by the incident of the shipping vessel, and resume the path for the consolidation of the "strategic relationship for mutual benefit."

An important stage in this journey will arrive in November when Chinese President Hu Jintao meets with Prime Minister of Japan in Yokohama (Japan) at the APEC summit (Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation).

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