The Hangzhou G20 Summit and Developments in Sino-Japanese Relations

by Shiroyama Hidemi / October 31, 2016 /

When Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō on the evening of September 5, 2016, following the conclusion of the Group of Twenty summit in Hangzhou, his visage was stern and unsmiling. And as the two leaders stood next to each other in front of the cameras, Xi momentarily turned his gaze in the opposite direction from Abe.

The propaganda department of the Communist Party of China presented Abe as an unwelcome guest. This was clear from the following morning’s issue of the People’s Daily, the CPC’s party organ. The second page was filled with news about President Xi’s meetings with five foreign leaders, including South Korean President Park Geun-hye, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as Japanese Prime Minister Abe. But while the photos of Xi shaking hands with the other leaders showed the two countries’ flags in the background, the photo with Abe was taken with just a wall behind them.

In the video clips shown on China Central Television (CCTV), the national broadcasting network, viewers saw Xi meeting with foreign leaders in a room featuring a huge painting of Hangzhou and its adjoining West Lake, displaying the scenic beauty of the place called China’s “heaven on earth.” In front of the painting were two pairs of flags of each country. The table across which the leaders faced each other was decorated with plants, and the seats in which they sat were sumptuous. But the meeting with Abe was an exception: It was held in a somber room with a plain table and chairs.

Furthermore, at the meeting with Abe, Xi was not accompanied by the two Politburo members in his innermost circle of advisers, Central Policy Research Office Director Wang Huning and CPC General Office Director Li Zhanshu, who were present at all the other bilateral sessions. This was the same sort of staging as at Xi’s two previous meetings with Abe. As one Chinese government official explained, “The meeting was unofficial, and improvement in bilateral ties has not yet been achieved.” The arrangements for the session reflected this.

Going All Out to Ensure a Successful G20 Summit

For Xi, however, having a meeting with Abe on the occasion of the G20 summit was definitely on the agenda. Thus it was that he had Foreign Minister Wang Yi make his first trip to Japan in the three and a half years since assuming his post.

Foreign Minister Wang serves Xi as a convenient envoy, a talented actor who changes his expression depending on the state of relations with the other country and on circumstances within China and within the CPC.

One example of Wang’s ability to read the changing winds within the Xi administration can be seen in his contrasting behavior vis-à-vis Japan:  Around three years ago, when Sino-Japanese relations were at their frostiest, he avoided greeting Japan’s Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio at international conferences where they were both in attendance, and he made a point of keeping his distance from Kishida so as not to be caught by cameras in the same shot. He knew that if a photo of him together with Kishida were to show up on the Internet and circulate within China, he was sure to come under criticism from various quarters. But when he visited Japan late in August this year, just before the G20 summit, he put on a smiling face for the photographers.

This was entirely for the sake of making the G20 summit a success. The Chinese needed to keep Prime Minister Abe from striking a discordant note as the leader who has been at the forefront of criticism of China’s posture in the South China Sea. So in his dealings with the Japanese side, Foreign Minister Wang pursued active diplomacy to pave the way for a bilateral summit, and at the same time he did not neglect to remind the press corps in Tokyo that when a host shows hospitality to a guest, the guest must reciprocate by going along with the host. He was warning that Japan needed to observe China’s decision not to make the South China Sea a topic of discussion at the G20 gathering.

On July 12, an international tribunal in the Hague issued a blanket rejection of China’s broad territorial claims in the South China Sea, creating a diplomatic crisis for the Xi administration. More than any previous leader of the People’s Republic of China, President Xi, who has been calling for pursuit of the “Chinese dream,” has been heightening nationalistic sentiment by stressing China’s historical humiliation of having been robbed of its territory and sovereignty, and he has made the achievement of maritime power status—including an uncompromising stance on China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands and to much of the South China Sea—a plank of party policy. But the pursuit of great power status led to an undesired outcome, alarming China’s neighbors and pushing the Philippines to bring its case against China to an international tribunal, an arbitration panel set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If Xi were to yield to the tribunal’s ruling and surrender China’s claims, he could come under attack from within the party as a traitor. It would be an act of political suicide.

The G20 was a forum at which China might have found itself hit with criticism on an international stage, but the Chinese leadership knew that it could also be turned into a positive opportunity. So the Chinese focused their diplomatic efforts on initiatives to keep the South China Sea issue from being raised in Hangzhou and to render the tribunal’s ruling ineffective.

Xi held his meeting with US President Barack Obama, a leader of increasingly lame-duck status, at the West Lake State Guesthouse. This was the site of the 1972 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai, a historic encounter that transformed the inimical relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. After their meeting and dinner, the two leaders took a nighttime stroll beside the lake. Xi asked Obama if he was still exercising, adding a soft note to the stiff talks between them. And the Chinese demonstrated their strong interest in good relations with the United States by arranging for the two countries to simultaneously ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. They thereby succeeded at projecting the image of a responsible great power, while drawing attention away from the South China Sea. Read more…


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