China pulled the rug Friday on kiss-and-make-up talks between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao.
Chinese Assistant Foreign Minister Hu Zhengyue slammed Japan and the United States, Tokyo’s closest ally, accusing Tokyo of turning the Senkaku/Diaoyu issue into a ‘hot topic’ at the ASEAN summit in Hanoi.
Kan and Wen were due to meet on the sidelines of the talking shop to clear the air over the maritime dispute, but Beijing said such a meeting ‘has become difficult,’ after Japan ‘spread groundless distortions’ and ‘ruined the atmosphere’ for one-on-one talks between the two leaders.
The cancellation of the meeting is a surprise considering that Beijing seemed eager to ease tensions with Tokyo following outbreaks of heated anti-Japanese protests in several Chinese cities over the past few weeks.
The meeting had seemed likely to proceed after Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara met with Yang Jiechi, his Chinese counterpart, for about 80 minutes earlier in the day. By all accounts, these talks were tense, but constructive, touching on issues such as the territorial dispute, rare earth metals and China’s drilling for natural gas in Japan’s exclusive economic zone.
But China scratched the leaders’ summit, according to Hu, because Japan had made use of the media to issue statements that violated the sovereignty and territorial integrity of China.
Hu was perhaps referring to a joint press conference held in Honolulu on Wednesday by Maehara and US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in which Clinton again seemed to back Japan’s sovereignty of the contested islands, saying the ‘Senkakus fall within the scope of Article 5 of the 1960 US-Japan Treaty of Mutual Cooperation and Security.’
China is clearly unhappy (as it is with other territorial spats across Asia) with what it perceives as the United States sticking its oar into a bilateral issue. But it seems strange that it went ahead with the foreign ministers’ meeting, yet torpedoed the leaders’ summit at the last minute. Such posturing has been common from both sides since the offshore collision in September.
For the record, Kan and Wen did hold a trilateral meeting on Friday with South Korean President Lee Myung-bak, in which they discussed rare earths and North Korea’s nuclear programme. So Kan and Wen, while not coming across as buddies, are at least talking. TV cameras also zoomed in on a limp handshake between the pair at a summit lunch Friday.
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.
And as if the beleaguered Japanese government didn’t have enough on its plate, the Kyodo news agency reported Friday that Russian President Dmitry Medvedev plans to become the first Russian or Soviet leader to visit one of the disputed Russian-held islands to the north of Hokkaido on Monday.