Is China’s return to ‘smile diplomacy’ genuine?

November 25, 2014 09:36
The frosty handshake aside, the recent meeting between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe could pave the way for the two nations to end the downward spiral of their relationship. Photo: AFP

The frosty handshake between Chinese President Xi Jinping and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on the margins of the APEC meeting in Beijing is providing an opportunity for the two countries to end the downward spiral of their relations in the last two years, but this is by no means assured. Each must be cognizant of the sensitivities of the other side in an extremely unstable relationship.

Both sides had their respective domestic audiences in mind at the historic meeting. Xi, through his attitude, was showing the nationalistic Chinese public that he was by no means embracing Abe, who is known for his revisionist positions on history. The Japanese leader wanted to convince the Japanese public that he was making progress in improving relations with China, Japan’s most important trading partner.

A few days before the 25-minute meeting, the two sides reached a four-point agreement that was meant to deal with two key issues: the dispute over the Senkaku islands, known to China as the Diaoyus, and visits by the Japanese leader to the controversial Yasukuni Shrine.

However, the day after the Abe-Xi meeting, Japan’s foreign minister, Fumio Kishida, was asked at a press conference if the Japanese position that the islands belonged to Japan and that there was no territorial dispute remained unchanged. He responded, “Certainly.” Japan, it seems, has not shifted its position.

On the Yasukuni issue, however, there is less room for maneuver. Abe knows that going to the shrine would be tantamount to poking China in the eye.

China appears prepared for a limited thaw. Certainly, both sides recognize that they are being hurt by the hostile relationship.

In fact, there is now momentum for a trilateral summit meeting, including President Park Geun-hye of South Korea, and talks on a China-Japan-South Korea free-trade agreement appear back on track.

Actually, Beijing has been laying the groundwork for a more amicable relationship with its neighbors in the months leading up to the APEC meeting. Indeed, the meeting provided an opportunity for China to shine, with its advocacy of the setting up of a free trade agreement of Asia-Pacific nations, despite American advocacy of a rival trading bloc, the Trans-Pacific Partnership.

It was also during the APEC meeting that China unveiled a free-trade agreement with South Korea, followed shortly by the announcement of a similar pact with Australia.

Chinese diplomacy was active in the aftermath of APEC. Premier Li Keqiang went to Myanmar for the ASEAN meetings, at which he called for a friendship treaty between China and the Southeast Asian grouping. President Xi traveled to Brisbane for the G20 meeting as well as a state visit to Australia, which went extremely well, with him scoring points for meeting with a group of primary school students in Tasmania who had written him a letter in Chinese.

Xi then headed for New Zealand, where he made a state visit, and onward to Fiji, a tiny Pacific island nation, for another state visit. There, he also held separate meetings with leaders of other Pacific island states and announced the establishment of a strategic partnership with eight Pacific island countries.

China, which for many years played a relatively passive diplomatic role, has clearly gone on the offensive, reaching out to countries large and small.

Beijing is busily creating platforms for its diplomacy. Earlier this year, at a meeting in Shanghai of the previously obscure Conference on Interaction and Confidence Building Measures in Asia (CICA), Xi proposed an Asian security concept whereby Asians would be responsible for their own security.

This was elaborated last week at the Xiangshan Forum in Beijing. Vice Foreign Minister Liu Zhenmin said China hopes the forum would make ever greater contributions “to the building of an Asian community of shared destiny”.

In a barely disguised dig at the United States, the deputy minister called for “new concepts and approaches to security” rather than systems of “bilateral military alliances” which “will easily worsen divisions and confrontation in the region”.

Commenting on relations with Japan, Liu said China was committed to “managing and resolving the Diaoyu Island dispute”. Recognition of the need to manage the issue suggests a move towards a more nuanced position.

China has also held top-level meetings with leaders of the Philippines and Vietnam, key claimants in the South China Sea dispute. The Philippine president, Benigno Aquino, said that there had been a “meeting of minds” though nothing concrete was decided.

The question now is whether this marks a return to the conciliatory Chinese diplomacy of the past or whether it is simply an adjustment to meet short-term needs. In this regard, relations with Japan will provide a useful touchstone.

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.