In a surprise move after it looked like the recent spat between Tokyo and Beijing was quieting down, China has just canceled a planned meeting between its premier Wen Jiabao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan on the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Hanoi.
And it did so in spectacularly undiplomatic language, with Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue (in remarks paraphrased by Xinhua, Beijing’s state-run news agency) accusing Japanese diplomats of “violating China's sovereignty and territorial integrity through statements to the media” and making “untrue statements about the content of a meeting between Chinese and Japanese foreign ministers held earlier in the day.”
Xinhua also said Hu accused “the diplomatic authority of Japan, in cahoots with other nations,” of trying to “create noises on the issue of the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea in the lead-up to the summits between ASEAN and its partners.”
It’s no secret that China doesn’t much like Seiji Maehara, Japan’s new, unabashedly pro-American foreign minister, who after a 2005 speech characterizing China’s rise as a “threat” was all but declared persona non grata in Beijing. U.S. diplomats describe Maehara in glowing terms, a welcome breath of fresh air after a year of confused relations. Earlier this month, when Maehara described China’s reaction to the recent fishing trawler incident near the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu island chain as “hysterical,” he drew a harsh rebuke from Beijing. (To be fair, he also recently complemented Chinese president-to-be Xi Jinping on his “very gentle-looking appearance.”)
Japan’s Mainichi News sees the cancelation of the Wen-Kan meeting as “aiming to deal a blow” at Maehara, who pissed off the Chinese again Wednesday by reiterating Japan’s claim of sovereignty over the Senkaku/Diaoyu islands during a press conference with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In their remarks, the two diplomats pointedly emphasized the security aspects of the U.S.-Japan relationship, and Clinton also drew China’s ire by bluntly saying the Senkakus “fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 U.S.-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security” -- though she was only reiterating what Defense Secretary Bob Gates and Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen had already made clear.
Clinton’s speech Thursday, billed as a major statement of U.S. policy in 21st century Asia, was nuanced, but noticeably chilly toward China -- making it clear that the United States is going to remain a player in Asia for the indefinite future, and that it isn’t going to let Beijing push around America’s allies in the region.
Things are about to get chillier. The Diplomat’s Andy Sharp notes:
Another element that could pour oil on the territorial squabbling is that video footage of the collision between the Chinese trawler and two Japanese patrol boats will be shown to a restricted number of Japanese lawmakers in the Diet on Monday. While the content of the video won’t be made public (opposition Diet members are demanding its full disclosure – and surely its only a matter of time before it finds its way onto the Internet), the reaction of lawmakers on both sides of the house will likely be a hot topic in the coming weeks.
UPDATE: It looks like U.S. diplomats are assiduously trying to calm things down between China and Japan, and Kan and Wen apparently did meet briefly on the sidelines of the summit. But it's not clear to what extent that meeting was Wen freelancing, or whether it was a conscious attempt by China to lower the temperature. One good sign: The People's Daily reports that Clinton and Dai Bingguo, the top Chinese official on foreign affairs, had a good meeting.