China Power

China-Japan Ties Back on Track?

Naoto Kan reiterates his ‘firm’ position at a meeting with Hu Jintao on the sidelines of the APEC summit.

The meeting was short, but the Japanese side at least is arguing that it was enough to start putting Sino-Japanese ties back on track.

According to Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama, Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese President Hu Jintao talked for about 20 minutes, during which time Kan is said to have repeated his 'firm' position over the dispute. Somewhat oddly, a Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman also briefed the media, but claimed that the two leaders didn't talk about China's alleged halting of rare earth shipments, the arrest of the Chinese fishing captain in September or the leaked footage by the Japan Coast Guard officer that appears to show the trawler involved deliberately ramming a JCG vessel. The spokesman said merely that the meeting was 'an important opportunity to bring relations back to normal.'

Of course he's right on this. There should never have been any doubt in the first place over whether the Chinese side would accept the Japanese request to meet – it would have been sad and unhelpful if the leaders of Asia's two largest economies couldn't bring themselves to talk at the key economic forum of the Asia-Pacific region.

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I asked Shogo Suzuki, a lecturer in politics at Manchester University and a specialist in Japan-China ties whether he was surprised China acceded to the Japanese request. He told me: 'I think Hu Jintao knows, as do many within the Chinese political elite, that China has no choice but to try and get along with Japan. Whenever there's been a spat, China has tended to let the storm pass and then try and resume business as normal.'
Some might be tempted to think that despite the fevered speculation about whether there would be a meeting between the two, that a short bilateral session like this was actually inevitable. But as Suzuki added, this simply isn't the case.
'The fact that a high-level meeting took place is significant. At the end of Koizumi’s tenure, China and Korea refused to even meet Koizumi, so compared to that low ebb, it shows that the Chinese still regard Kan as someone they can do business with.'
So what clinched the change in Chinese approach? As I've written recently, it's hard to escape the sense that China has gradually been isolating itself, not least with its furious (over) reaction to the detention of the fishing captain and ensuing threats of retaliatory measures. According to Suzuki: 'One thing we don’t know, of course, is the degree to which Hu and the others think that China has lost out in the diplomatic game this time, and whether or not this also prompted them to shift tactics and go for dialogue once again'.