Japan, China: Xi's Tainted Visit to Tokyo

By Ernest Bey

Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping arrived in Tokyo on Dec. 14 at the start of a four-nation Asian tour intended to highlight China’s warming relations with its neighbors. But in Tokyo, Xi’s visit has been overshadowed by questions surrounding his planned meeting with the emperor. A break in diplomatic protocol in the timing of the request for the meeting, as well as accusations in Japan that the ruling party intended to use the emperor for political purposes, has tainted Xi’s visit, highlighted the differences between China and Japan, and exposed the ruling Democratic Party of Japan to fresh domestic criticism.


Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama on Dec. 14 at the start of an Asian tour that will also take Xi to South Korea, Cambodia and Myanmar. Xi’s visit to Tokyo, the first by a high-ranking Chinese official since the Democratic Party of Japan (DPJ) took power from the long-ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP), was intended by Beijing to highlight the room for cooperation and the warming relations between China and Japan. However, a breach of diplomatic protocol regarding a meeting with Japanese Emperor Akihito has clouded the visit and could leave the Japanese more leery of China and the DPJ’s views of Japan’s large neighbor.

Xi’s visit was supposed to be part of China’s efforts to demonstrate a more cooperative attitude with its Asian neighbors. In Japan, this was focused particularly on the potential for increased economic cooperation and for the formation of an East Asian Community (an idea proffered by Japan, and one which China considers beneficial in reducing regional anxiety about Chinese economic, political and military developments). More immediately, China wanted to take advantage of a change in the Japanese government to improve the sometimes contentious relations between China and Japan, a key U.S. regional ally.

In particular, Xi was to explore just how much change could be expected from the DPJ government, and to present a less threatening and more cooperative China to Japan to try to exploit the apparent rift between Washington and Tokyo over base relocation and defense ties. Although major changes in Sino-Japanese relations were not expected from Xi’s trip, the mood was supposed to be one of friendship, trust and regional cooperation. The debate over Xi’s planned meeting with Emperor Akihito has turned this on its ear.

Although the details are still somewhat confused, it appears that Xi requested a meeting with the emperor around Nov. 26, as details of his visit to Japan were being finalized. By standard Japanese protocol, however, a meeting must be requested at least one month prior to the visit, and Xi’s request was initially rejected. But the Chinese side persisted, in part because Xi is likely to become Chinese president in 2012 and his predecessor, current Chinese President Hu Jintao, met the emperor in 1998 when he was a newly appointed vice president. In order to emphasize Xi’s prominence on the international stage and at home (where there has been some speculation that his accession to the presidency is not entirely assured), it was important for Xi to meet with the emperor.

And this is where the trouble started. Chinese Ambassador to Japan Cui Tiankai, and Vice Foreign Minister Wang Guangya both got involved, pressing their Japanese counterparts to bypass protocol and encourage a meeting with the emperor. On the Japanese side, Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirofumi Hirano, (according to reports) DPJ Secretary General Ichiro Ozawa and the prime minister all got involved, encouraging the imperial household to allow the meeting despite the change in protocol. The Chinese had argued that the meeting with Emperor Akihito was vital for the success of Xi’s visit, and the Japanese government pushed for the meeting due to the importance of Japanese-Chinese relations.

However the meeting was finally arranged, the non-standard method has left the DPJ facing loud domestic criticism by the opposition LDP, and colored Xi’s visit. The accusations flying in Japan suggest the DPJ forced the meeting on the emperor for political purposes, disrespecting the emperor and violating the separation of the imperial household from politics. While these accusations are directed at the DPJ — and Ozawa and Hatoyama in particular — the subtext is that these Japanese politicians were kowtowing to the Chinese. This paints Xi’s visit as one of Chinese pressure, not cooperation, while potentially requiring the DPJ to take a stronger tack on China in order to recover from the political backlash. And in the end, Xi’s visit, intended to be a sign of his own (and China’s) rising clout, is quickly turning out to be an embarrassment that could keep Japanese-Chinese relations shaky.


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