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Tensions over Pelosi’s visit bring Japan-China diplomacy to crossroads

  • August 6, 2022
  • , Nikkei Asia , 6:19 a.m.
  • English Press
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Beijing’s response leaves no room to thread needle between economy, security

 

RIEKO MIKI, Nikkei staff writer

 

TOKYO — Japan’s careful juggling of a geopolitical hardline stance and economic cooperation with China appears to be nearing a breaking point, as Beijing fumes over U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s trip to Taiwan.

 

Beijing is taking aim at Tokyo for being a close ally of Washington, reacting strongly to Pelosi’s meeting with Prime Minister Fumio Kishida. The tensions jeopardize Japan’s role as an intermediary between China and the U.S. as the sole Asian member of the Group of Seven.

 

The fraying relationship was cast into sharp relief Thursday, when Beijing at the last minute pulled out of a planned meeting between Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Japanese counterpart Yoshimasa Hayashi in Cambodia.

 

“Japan joined other members of G-7 and the [European Union] in issuing a joint statement which contains groundless accusations against China,” Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying said when asked about the decision. The statement released Wednesday expressed concern over “aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait.”

 

In a further sign of souring sentiment, five ballistic missiles fired by China during military exercises near Taiwan landed in Japan’s exclusive economic zone for the first time that same day.

 

“The Japan-China security environment has entered a new phase,” a senior Japanese Defense Ministry official said.

 

Beijing gave Tokyo only about half a day’s notice of the cancellation of what would have been the first face-to-face talks between their foreign ministers in nearly two years. The Chinese side had been waiting to see whether Kishida planned to meet with Pelosi the following day, and Japan did not make Kishida’s schedule public until the last minute.

 

On Thursday afternoon, shortly after the Japanese side was told that the talks were off, tensions were evident in a meeting of foreign ministers from the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, China, Japan and South Korea.

 

Wang asserted that Japan bears “historical responsibility” for the situation in Taiwan, and according to a Japanese government source, the Chinese diplomat raised his voice at Hayashi at one point.

 

The Chinese missiles landed in Japan’s EEZ after that meeting.

 

The following day, Kishida received Pelosi at the prime minister’s residence for a nearly hourlong visit. “We affirmed that Japan and the U.S. will coordinate closely to maintain peace and stability in the Taiwan Strait,” he told reporters afterward.

 

Around the same time, top diplomats were gathered in Cambodia for an East Asia Summit ministerial meeting. When Hayashi’s turn to speak came, Wang walked out along with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov, sending a signal that China regards Japan’s position as the same as that of the U.S.

 

For the past several years, Tokyo has advocated the idea of a “free and open Indo-Pacific” as a counter to China, while still taking pains to keep up its economic relationship with Beijing. Even as tensions mounted between China and the U.S., Japan continued to thread that needle.

 

Kishida’s administration has pursued a policy of diplomatic realism, and has stressed that it will engage with China when needed. This year in particular is significant for bilateral ties, with the 50th anniversary of the normalization of Japan-China diplomatic relations, along with a planned state funeral for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe in September that will bring in foreign dignatories. 

 

The planned meeting in Cambodia had been seen as laying groundwork for a proposed virtual meeting between Kishida and Chinese President Xi Jinping by this fall. But that scenario has run aground.

 

“Communication is especially important in tense situations,” Hayashi told reporters Friday while speaking about the canceled meeting. “Japan is always open to dialogue with China.”

 

Japan’s response to the recent developments has been muted. The government did not convene a national security council meeting after Chinese missiles fell in Japan’s EEZ, in contrast to its response to North Korean launches.

 

“North Korea’s ballistic missile launches are a violation of United Nations Security Council resolutions, but that’s not the case this time,” a senior Japanese official said. “We made a comprehensive decision.”

 

The Japanese government repeatedly said it would not comment on the Taiwan issue in regards to Pelosi’s trip to the island. Pelosi also did not say whether she discussed Taiwan during her meeting with Kishida, likely in consideration of Japan’s delicate relations with China.

 

Economically, China has wooed Japan over the years, partly in an attempt to drive a wedge between Tokyo and Washington. But Japan’s approach of separating national security concerns from its economic ties with China may fail if Beijing sees the country to be in lockstep with the U.S.

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