China-Japan spat drives plunge in support for Japan's Kan

Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan met Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on the sidelines of the Asia-Europe summit in Brussels Monday, but the issues at the heart of recent China-Japan friction remain unresolved.

Yves Logghe/AP
Japan's Prime Minister Naoto Kan is seen during the opening ceremony of an Asia-Europe summit in Brussels on Monday.
Francois Lenoir/Reuters
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao attends a meeting with European officials during the second day of an Asia-Europe summit in Brussels on Tuesday.

Monday’s meeting between Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao is the clearest sign yet that the countries are mending fences after their worst bilateral row for years.

Over the course of a 25-minute “spontaneous” encounter after dinner at the Asia-Europe summit in Brussels, the leaders, according to Mr. Kan, agreed to “return to the starting point of improving our strategically mutual beneficial relations.”

But the show of postprandial statesmanship falls well short of a resolution of the issue at the heart of recent friction: competing territorial claims to the Senkakus, a group of uninhabited islands in the east China Sea that China refers to as the Diaoyu, and drilling rights to nearby oil and gas fields.

And unfortunately for Mr. Kan, the Japanese public has taken a dim view of his handling of the spat, which erupted after a Chinese trawler collided with Japanese Coast Guard vessels near the Senkakus early last month.

Political support for Mr. Kan plummets

Support for Kan's government has dropped to 49 percent from 64 percent last month, according to a poll in the Mainichi newspaper. More than 70 percent of respondents said prosecutors in Japan should not have released the captain, Qixiong Zhan, before deciding whether to charge him – a course of action that looks increasingly unlikely.

Anger at the prosecutors’ actions has shifted to Kan amid a widely held suspicion that his administration pressured prosecutors to release Mr. Zhan to avoid inflicting further damage on Sino-Japanese relations. What officials viewed as necessary realpolitik, voters saw as an ignominious climbdown in the face of Chinese pressure.

“I think the decision to release the captain exposed flaws in Kan’s foreign policy,” says Hajime Izumi, professor of international relations at the University of Shizuoka. “First he said the matter would be dealt with in line with domestic laws, but then the captain was released. That is a serious inconsistency, and not good for future relations with China. It is evidence that Kan doesn’t have a clear view of how to move forward.”

Fury in both countries

In China, the episode unleashed a stream of anti-Japanese vitriol among nationalist netizens, but in Japan, conservatives took aim at Beijing and their own government.

Tokyo held the trawler’s captain for two weeks, insisting it had the option of bringing him to trial. In response, China suspended high-level contacts, postponed talks on joint drilling in undersea gas fields and canceled package tours. For a while, the countries appeared on the verge of a return to the dark days of the administration of Junichiro Koizumi, who as Japan’s prime minister from 2001-2006 angered China with annual visits to a war shrine in Tokyo.

That scenario has been averted, to the relief of the US, which shuddered at the thought of a prolonged rift between two rival powers in a volatile region.

There were signs that Beijing’s stance was softening before the Kan-Wen meeting. China has released three of four Japanese citizens detained late last month for allegedly entering a restricted military zone – Tokyo is demanding the immediate release of a fourth worker. It also lifted a de facto ban on exports of rare earth metals to Japan, its biggest buyer of the resource, which is used in everything from consumer electronics to precision-guided weapons to hybrid cars.

Regular talks

Kan and Wen agreed to hold regular high-level talks, but reiterated their countries’ claims to the islands.

Izumi believes that the political damage to Kan is unlikely to heal soon unless he can present a foreign policy success to voters.

“An example of that would be a quick recovery in Japan’s relations with the United States,” he says, adding that Kan should move to
settle the Futenma base relocation issue now, rather than wait for the result of next month’s governor’s election in Okinawa. “If [Kan] can do that, people may forget about this serious failure in dealing with China. But if not, they won’t forget in a hurry.”

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