Kan-Hu talks spurred by U.S. clout, shift in anti-Japan protests

by Ko Hirano

Kyodo News

YOKOHAMA — Chinese President Hu Jintao’s acceptance of a meeting Saturday with Prime Minister Naoto Kan apparently reflects Beijing’s desire to assuage anti-Japan feelings in the country and curb increased U.S. involvement in regional affairs, in particular in the East China Sea and the South China Sea.

Not mentioning U.S. obligations under its security pact with Japan to defend the disputed Senkaku Islands in case of foreign attack in an earlier meeting between Kan and U.S. President Barack Obama helped create an atmosphere for the talks in Yokohama. An absence of tough remarks recently by Japanese Foreign Minister Seiji Maehara against China also contributed.

But sensitivity over management of Japan-China ties remains, including renewed anti-China sentiment in Japan following the recent leak of video footage showing collisions in September between a Chinese fishing boat and two Japanese Coast Guard ships near the islands, which led to the arrest of a Chinese ship captain, who later was released.

Japanese officials declined to give details about the Kan-Hu talks to the press and China canceled a news conference Sunday, leading journalists to suspect the two governments are concerned that reports about the leaders’ comments on the islands — administered by Japan but claimed by China — may exacerbate the feelings of the two countries’ people against each other.

In a sign of sensitivity over the Senkakus, which China calls Diaoyu, a recent survey shows that 36.5 percent of 1,305 respondents in seven Chinese cities say “force of arms could be an option” in dealing with “island disputes” between China and Japan and other countries.

The poll, carried in the Nov. 8 issue of the Global Times, said 47.4 percent of the respondents believe China should be most wary of the United States in islands disputes, indicating the Chinese are wary of U.S. intervention in the Senkakus issue and squabbles with other Southeast Asian countries over territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Japan came second, with 40.5 percent.

“U.S. foreign policy basically encourages disagreements among Asian countries, especially by rallying Asian countries against China,” the paper, a sister publication of the Communist Party of China’s People’s Daily, said in an editorial on Wednesday. “The U.S. then collects the fruit.”

In China, some anti-Japan protesters have shifted their criticisms to the government and the Communist Party, prompting authorities to tighten control on such demonstrations, which otherwise could undermine stability and development in Chinese society and the economy.

Mirroring the changing nature of anti-Japan rallies, protesters in Baoji, Shaanxi Province, in late October carried banners reading, “Curb high housing prices,” and, “We oppose corruption in the bureaucracy,” underscoring the people’s frustration over widening income gaps and government corruption.

Some even called for “promotion of multiparty cooperation,” apparently criticizing the Communist Party’s one-party rule of the country.

Japanese officials say the Kan-Hu talks made a “big step forward” in improving bilateral ties. But analysts believe it only marked the start of a delicate process to mend the damaged ties related to a number of outstanding issues, such as China’s de facto export control of rare earth minerals and stalled talks for signing a treaty over joint gas field development in the East China Sea.

“It will be difficult for China and Japan to address territorial disputes soon,” said Liu Jiangyong, a professor of East Asian affairs at Tsinghua University in Beijing. “But they should overcome such a difference and try to develop relations in a broader framework of strategic relationship of mutual benefits.”

Liu told Kyodo News over the phone that Beijing is closely watching whether a new Japanese defense guideline to be unveiled in December will specify a so-called “southwest focus” in shifting priority defense areas from Hokkaido to maritime areas stretching from Kyushu to near Taiwan, a move apparently targeting China.

Liu said Beijing is also carefully watching whether Japan will pay greater attention to a U.S.-backed free trade initiative known as the Trans-Pacific Partnership than a 13-member grouping of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations plus China, Japan and South Korea as a vehicle to advance regional economic integration.