When a Chinese leader meets a foreign dignitary, it’s usually a fairly stage-managed affair. You know the drill: the obligatory photos in the Great Hall of the People (with guest usually shown in inferior posture to host); then the stilted dialogue as the duo sit side-by-side in lace-strewn armchairs (hesitant visitors pondering whether to cross their legs or turn their bodies towards their host). Then pretty female attendants pour tea before the visitor is ushered out, often non-plussed by the whole experience.
The ritual is not without purpose, conveying China’s traditionally opaque diplomatic style, as well as its unspoken sense of superiority.
So a recent meeting that veered dramatically from the standard formula has been getting attention.
It involved China’s current leader, Hu Jintao and Japan’s premier Noda Yoshihiko. And unsually, there wasn’t an upholstered armchair in sight: in fact, the two met in a corridor. Indeed, the duo’s 15-minute chat on Sunday wasn’t even classed as ‘official’ by either side, having been organised hastily on the fringes of the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit in Vladivostok.
Why the break with protocol? Hu and Noda convened the unusual meeting to discuss the worsening spat over islands in the East China Sea known as the Senkakus by the Japanese and the Diaoyus by China (it’s not a new row: WiC first reported on the islands in issue 78). But the tension seems to have gone up a few notches with the announcement of a Japanese government decision to purchase three of the uninhabited islands (there are five in total) from the Kurihara family, which claims to hold their legal title.
Xinhua reacted abruptly, challenging the legality of the move and warning that Tokyo had “thrown bilateral relations into a scalding pot”. During Hu’s exchange with Noda in Vladivostok, the Chinese president is also said to have dispensed with the niceties, warning the Japanese that China strongly opposed the move.
Not that this seems to have made much of a difference. On Monday the China Daily reported that Noda’s government had gone ahead and bought the islands for $26 million. Not a huge amount you might think – although the costs could prove far greater if Beijing’s retaliation includes action against Japanese firms.
Why has Japan made the move? Richard C Bush of the Brookings Institution felt Noda has been forced into a purchase to ward off a more incendiary buyer. That might be true: the most recent spat flared in April when the nationalistic governor of Tokyo, Ishihara Shintaro suggested his city would buy the islands. Bush says this would have provoked China further, especially if it led to Ishihara’s nationalistic allies planting flags and erecting lighthouses. Instead, he says, Noda will stop anyone going there, in an effort to prevent worsening relations.
But even if Bush is right, such nuances won’t wash with China’s own highly combustible nationalists. Anti-Japanese protests have resumed across the country, and an increasingly aggressive mood is prevalent among netizens.
This creates a problem for the Chinese leadership, which knows that it must be seen defending the national interest but doesn’t want to push the public mood into outright fury.
So Premier Wen Jiabao is standing fast, stating that China will make “absolutely no concession” on its territorial claims. And on Tuesday Beijing also sent patrol ships to the islands in response to what it is calling Japan’s “act of theft”. In another indication of the seriousness of the situation, the PLA Daily, a military newspaper warned Japan not to “play with fire”.
The escalation is worrying. With both nations determined not to lose face, it’s hard to see how either will back down. Worse, it’s not evident a compromise even exists.
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