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Earlier this week, U.S. President Joe Biden finally had a substantive meeting — albeit virtually — with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping.

Although a well-informed senior U.S. administration official described the summit as “nothing to report,” an editorial by China’s Global Times was more optimistic in calling the outcome of the meeting “relatively positive.”

After the meeting concluded, there was speculation among some circles in Tokyo that Biden might participate in the Beijing Winter Olympic Games’ opening ceremony next February, on grounds that Washington often prefers Beijing to Tokyo when it comes to protecting core national interests of the United States.

Although the rumor seems to be being proved wrong, such U.S.-China conspiracy theories still exist in Tokyo. It is a historical byproduct of the surprise 1971 announcement that then-President Richard Nixon would visit China, the planning of which Tokyo was kept out of the loop.

Japan has been traumatized from the humiliating experience and has since fretted about Washington’s intentions regarding China.

Conflicting views

So perhaps it is only natural that the media in Tokyo, while welcoming the first Biden-Xi summit meeting, are divided on evaluating the outcome of the virtual summit.

Though some conservative dailies are more critical about Beijing’s self-assertive behavior, most of Japan’s mainstream media seem to have avoided taking sides. The following are the headlines of their editorials:

  • The Sankei: Don’t give in to threats against Taiwan
  • The Yomiuri: Restraint on intimidation must come first to avoid clashes
  • The Asahi: Find ways to work together, not against each other
  • The Mainichi: U.S.-China summit under tension; Continue dialogue to avert conflict
  • The Tokyo Shimbun: U.S., China leaders must continue dialogue to avoid clashes
  • The Nikkei: U.S. and Chinese leaders should continue dialogue to avert conflict

In his summit meeting with Biden, as the Global Times reported, Xi warned that “China will be compelled to take resolute measures, should the separatist forces for ‘Taiwan independence’ provoke us, force our hands or even cross the red line.”

Xi also warned that “the intention of some Americans to use Taiwan to contain China” is “like playing with fire” and that “whoever plays with fire will get burnt.” Although this is nothing new, Xi’s warning appears to be a direct response to Biden’s Oct. 21 remark about his “commitment” to defend Taiwan if attacked by China.

Taiwan, of course, is a major issue for Tokyo. The conservative Sankei wrote, “For the world’s democratic camp, including the U.S., Europe and Japan, which regard the U.S.-China competition as a confrontation between democracy and despotism, it is extremely important to protect Taiwan’s democracy from Chinese pressure. We must not give in to threats.”

The Yomiuri echoed the Sankei: “Mr. Xi claimed that the cause of the tension was Taiwan’s dependence on the U.S. for its independence. He also referred to ‘resolute measures’ if the situation crossed the line, suggesting that China might use force to unify Taiwan.”

“This hardly suggests,” the Yomiuri continued, “that China is serious about improving relations with the United States. If China does not exercise restraint in its unilateral attempts to change the status quo, including in the East and South China Seas, it will not be able to erase the distrust of other countries.”

Other major daily newspapers, however, remained as neutral as they could and failed to make meaningful suggestions.

The Asahi, for example, analyzed that the Biden administration “has given priority to rebuilding the domestic economy and the alliances, and has taken a counterattack stance toward China.”

The Asahi’s editorial continued, as if Japan were a bystander in the U.S.-China showdown, “China would not accept cooperation until the U.S. changed its attitude” and “to avoid repeating history, the leaders of the U.S. and China should gather their wisdom to prevent a ‘new Cold War’ that will divide the world into two.”

The liberal Tokyo Shimbun’s editorial provided similar analysis, saying that “If the U.S. and Chinese administrations are dragged along by domestic hard-liners, they will be forced into an untenable position. To avoid a military conflict, restraint and reason are also required.” As many readers may find, these are not suggestions that will ease tensions.

The Mainichi, another liberal newspaper, suggested that “If the U.S. maintains its ‘One China’ policy in consideration of China on the Taiwan issue and China pursues a ‘peaceful resolution,’ the danger of a clash will be remote.” I am not so sure given the warning Xi gave to Biden that China would “be compelled to take resolute measures” against Taiwan.

Sober analysis

While echoing many other editorials’ position of neutrality by urging that “U.S., China leaders should continue dialogue to avoid conflict,” the Nikkei correctly examined the reasons why the two leaders had to finally meet, but only after 10 months since the inauguration of the Biden administration.

The Nikkei said: “The talks were made possible by mutual domestic and diplomatic considerations” and for the United States, “there was a fear that if relations with China deteriorated further on the economic front, it could backfire on the U.S. economy.”

For China, the Nikkei editorial continued, “If the supply chain is further fragmented, the impact will be immeasurable, and there was an urgent need to ease tensions in relations with the United States,” and concluded that “it will be more important than ever that the liberal and democratic camps remain firmly united.”

Whatever the reasons, it was good that Biden and Xi agreed to disagree. Is it a good omen? Hardly so but, at least, it is much better than the leaders of two major powers failing to agree to disagree — which could mean that they fail to discuss “ways to manage the competition between the United States and China responsibly and ways to establish guardrails for that competition,” as a senior U.S. administration official had stated.

Tokyo continues to keep its fingers crossed.

Kuni Miyake is president of the Foreign Policy Institute and research director at Canon Institute for Global Studies. A former career diplomat, Miyake also serves as a special adviser to Prime Minister Fumio Kishida’s Cabinet. The views expressed here do not necessarily reflect the positions of the Japanese government.

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