Immediately after Japan nationalized some of the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands last September, I pondered what the U.S. role might have been in that decision. As I noted at the time, Japan had made the announcement while then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was en route to Beijing, suggesting the U.S. had prior knowledge of the announcement or that Japan was seeking to create the impression that it did.
The question of a possible U.S. “hidden hand” in Chinese-Japanese relations again appears relevant in relation to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposed summit between him and Chinese President Xi Jinping, or, alternatively, between Japan and China’s foreign ministers.
Shinzo Abe called for the summit on Friday while in Singapore as part of his most recent Southeast Asia visit that also included stops in Malaysia and the Philippines.
“I think there should be a summit meeting and also a foreign ministers meeting as soon as possible … I think such meetings should be held without pre-conditions,” Abe said Reuters reported.
His statement was echoed by his close advisor, Isao Iijima, who Abe has entrusted to carry out some of the country’s most delicate diplomacy, including a trip to North Korea.
“I think a summit will be held in the not-so-distant future,” Iijima said on Sunday.
These statements did not come from a vacuum. For months there has been a series of track II and quiet diplomatic meetings between the two powers, even as their standoff over the Diaoyu/Senkakus has intensified. Iijima himself led a delegation to China to meet with “close associates” of Xi earlier this month, according to The Japan Times.
Moreover, from the Reuters report it does not appear Abe backtracked on any previous positions as he stated he wanted the talks to be held without preconditions, and doesn’t appear to have mentioned the dispute over the East China Sea islands specially, which Tokyo doesn’t officially recognize as being a dispute.
Still, there is good reason to think that the U.S. played a role in bringing the possible summit about. Stephen Harner, formerly a U.S. State Department official and current Forbes contributor, wrote on U.S.-China Focus over the weekend that Abe’s nationalistic statements have made him virtually “persona non grata” with the White House.
I suspect that this is overstating the case somewhat, but there have been a number of signs that the Obama administration is growing increasingly concerned about Abe’s revisionist history and the continued standoff with China over the Diaoyu/Senkaku Islands. Moreover, Abe’s statement on seeking a summit with President Xi came right after he met informally with Vice President Joe Biden when their paths crossed Singapore. At the very least, then, the timing of Abe’s statement gave the impression that the U.S. had been instrumental in pushing Abe toward a more conciliatory position.
If so, this is the kind of deft diplomacy one doesn’t normally associate with Washington.
The U.S. has many reasons to push Japan to call for a summit with China. To begin with, the U.S. has a security pact with Japan, which it has repeatedly stated includes the Diaoyu/Senkakus Islands. In effect, then, the U.S. has committed to going to war with China should Beijing try to take the islands militarily. Washington certainly doesn’t want to have to make good on this promise, and therefore has every reason to want to dial down tensions.
Second, trying to create an image of Abe as a reasonable leader could help Tokyo repair relations with South Korea, something the U.S. has been trying to orchestrate for months now. These efforts may start paying off soon as at the end of his Southeast Asia tour on Saturday, Prime Minister Abe did in fact call for a summit with South Korean President South Korean President Park Geun-Hye.
Perhaps most importantly, to the extent that the U.S. can convince China that it is responsible for Japan moderating its position, it can make its pivot to Asia more palatable to leaders in Beijing. When Japan first nationalized the islands back in September, the consensus in Beijing seemed to be that the U.S. was secretly behind the move or, at the very least, that its pivot to Asia was emboldening countries like Japan and the Philippines.
This sentiment hasn’t disappeared entirely, of course, but these days there seems to be more concern in Beijing over Japan’s alleged return to right-wing nationalism proper, rather than America’s role in bringing it about. To the extent that the U.S. can restrain Japan—or at least be seen by China as doing such—it can make the case that it is in Beijing’s interest that the U.S. deepens its involvement in the region.
And, of course, the U.S. has not been shy in doing just that. Indeed, Vice President Biden made the case again right before departing Asia this weekend.
“The United States has a deep stake in these [maritime] issues,” Biden said at the tail end of his trip. “We are, we will remain a resident Pacific power…. And it’s in the interest of all nations, especially Pacific nations, that we be there.”
“America by admission of everyone, including the Chinese — America has helped create the conditions for security and stability that allow — has allowed the Asian-Pacific nations to turn their talents and intentions to the economic miracle that we witnessed the previous 60 years.”