Hu summit overshadowed by risk

Unforeseen events have hampered reconciliation and put Fukuda in danger, diplomats say


Next Tuesday’s five-day visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao would have been one of Prime Minister Yasuo Fukuda’s finest moments. But now the summit appears to be a high-risk event fraught with diplomatic danger.

Although Fukuda is a well-known advocate of nurturing friendly ties with Asian neighbors, particularly China, a food-poisoning mystery, an energy dispute and anger over China’s crackdown in Tibet have compromised his political stock in the past few months and deeply damaged public sentiment toward China.

During the Hu-Fukuda summit Wednesday, China is expected to show appreciation for Japan’s call for setting goals for cutting carbon dioxide emissions, and, if all goes well, promise to provide a pair of panda bears to replace Ling Ling, the giant panda who grew to symbolize friendly Sino-Japanese ties, Japanese government officials said. The bear died Wednesday at Ueno Zoo in Tokyo.

But those goals are far from what the two top leaders were initially hoping for. Arguments and actions related to memories of the war and disputes over history have taken a deep toll on bilateral ties the past several years, and the two leaders were hoping to stage a full reconciliation during the summit.

“The bilateral relationship has suffered from a trifecta this time — the tainted ‘gyoza’ (dumplings) incident, the (energy) dispute in the East China Sea and the Tibetan issues,” said a senior Foreign Ministry official in charge of Chinese affairs.

The public remains strongly indignant about the dumpling scandal as well as Chinese police’s flat denial that the Chinese side bears any responsibility for the incident.

Despite lengthy negotiations ahead of Hu’s visit, diplomats have been unable to make a breakthrough in the long-standing dispute over exclusive economic zones in the East China Sea and Japan’s proposal to jointly develop gas fields there.

On top of that, the whole world is closely watching what Hu will do and say while in Tokyo, because this is his first appearance abroad since Beijing’s bloody crackdown on the riots in Tibet and the ensuing protests against the Olympic torch relay before the games in Beijing.

Tokyo has been trying to help Hu save face during the visit by avoiding direct criticism of China’s suspect human rights record. Prime Minister Fukuda even said Friday that he was considering attending the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games in August.

But at the same time, Japanese officials have rushed to emphasize that Japan is urging China behind the scenes to take the Tibetan issue seriously, and open a dialogue with the Dalai Lama before the Japanese public criticizes it for kowtowing to China on human rights.

“If we won’t discuss the Tibetan issue, it will draw a lot of criticism and cause a lot of trouble, won’t it?” said a senior Foreign Ministry official before his talks April 17 with visiting Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi and Foreign Minister Masahiko Komura.

For Hu, being too friendly to Japan would also be risky, from a domestic point of view. Labeling someone “pro-Japan” is a powerful and sometimes lethal tactic used by politicians in China.

Though they wouldn’t disclose the details, bureaucrats on both sides have already prepared compromise options for joint development of the disputed gas field in the East China Sea, and are waiting for the leaders to pick one, Foreign Ministry officials said.

But China’s top leaders still appear to be reluctant to make a decision out of fear of a political backlash from the public and the Chinese military, who might accuse them of making too many concessions to the Japanese, another senior Foreign Ministry official said.

“We are running out of time (before Hu’s visit),” the official said.

Still, Hu himself appears to be determined to push for good, long-term ties with Japan, according Foreign Ministry officials. The Chinese side is now eager to issue a joint political statement touting mid- and long-term bilateral cooperation, describing as it as “No. 4” on the list of important political documents concerning Japan, following the 1972 joint communique, the 1978 peace treaty and the 1998 joint statement.

To build a stable country, China still needs a help from Japan in many respects, said the Foreign Ministry official in charge of China affairs.

China replaced the United States as Japan’s top trade partner in 2007, with two-way trade totaling $236.6 billion. Beijing badly needs Japanese investment in developing areas and energy-efficient technologies to curb exploding domestic energy consumption.

And if China’s apparent financial bubble implodes, Beijing may need Japan’s support to stabilize the economy, too, the official said.

“We are trying to address medium- to long-term relationship, rather than specific issues like ‘gyoza’ and the East China Sea. But the media’s attention is not like that,” the official said.