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Geopolitics

The China-Japan Relationship: A Tale Of Manners And Diplomacy

Essay: A Beijing-based Japanese writer looks at history, diplomacy and body language to try to explain the chilly reception new Japanese Prime Minister Noda has received from China's Hu Jintao. What could it mean for a region at the center of shi

Yoshihiko Noda and Hu Jintao during the APEC meeting.
Yoshihiko Noda and Hu Jintao during the APEC meeting.
Daisuke Kondo

BEIJING -- On Nov. 3, in Cannes, France, the G20 leaders were assembling for dinner. The Japanese Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda, walked up to Hu Jintao, the Chinese President, and shook his hand warmly. "I'm Japan's new Prime Minister, Yoshihiko Noda. I had the honor to meet you 27 years ago when I visited China as a member of the Japan-China Youth Friendship Delegation…"

The Chinese leader was slightly surprised, and answered "We'll talk a bit more when we meet up again next week in Hawaii…" But Mr. Noda continued, thanking President Hu for the assistance China had offered in March after Japan's earthquake. Including the time needed for the interpreters, the conversation lasted just three minutes.

Nine days later in Hawaii, the two leaders met up again at the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) forum, and had their first official summit meeting. It lasted 30 minutes. At the start of the talks, Mr. Noda again mentioned the 1984 meeting. It was 12 years after Japan and China had normalized their relations. A youth delegation from Japan was invited by the then Chinese President Hu Yaobang. And Hu Jintao, as the head of the reception at that time, was very impressed with this visit. Throughout his subsequent career, he has mentioned this experience whenever he meets Japanese officials -- which is probably why Noda went out of his way to mention it.

But Hu did not seem to share his enthusiasm about their meeting, keeping the somber expression fixed on his face. Nor did he respond in kind when Noda described his wish that the East China Sea become a sea of peace, cooperation and friendship.

From my observation of Hu Jintao through CCTV's news broadcasts, he has but three expressions: happily smiling, alertly somber, or sad. The sad expression is reserved for the rare occasions like when he offered his condolences to the Japanese Embassy after the earthquake in March. For all other times, he chooses one of the other two – the smiling one for the "comrade", and the somber one for the "non-comrade".

As a Japanese person living in Beijing, I find that Japanese and Chinese people have totally different approaches in how to manage interpersonal relationships. To put it simply, the Japanese are more "vague" whereas the Chinese tend to draw a clear line between the "white" and the "black", the "good" and the "bad." For the Japanese, since "even friends can be like strangers," it follows that "neither stranger nor friend" is also the way of dealing with people.

In contrast, Chinese people draw clear boundaries. Either you are a friend and are to be treated very well, or you are a total stranger (or enemy), and contact is kept to a minimum. Such thinking and attitude is also reflected in the way China treats Japan.

Pawns and preferences

Take Japan's politicians as specific examples. Junichiro Koizumi, Japan's former Prime Minister was definitely a "black" figure, simply because he visited the Yasukuni Shrine, a Tokyo shrine dedicated to all Japanese who have died in wars for the Emperor. The shrine is controversial because among the people honored there are convicted war criminals from World War II, including those who committed atrocities in China.

In contrast, Yasuo Fukuda, the son of another Japanese Prime Minister Takeo Fukuda, is considered "white" for the reason that his father was the person who promoted and signed the Treaty of Peace and Friendship between Japan and China in 1978.

As for the current Prime Minister, Noda, since China believes he acts like a "pawn" for President Obama's China policy, which includes an increased US military presence in Asia, naturally he is put on the black list.

For someone like me, who used to work as a political correspondent in Japan and has long observed Japanese foreign policy towards China, it remains hard to understand China's stance.

Junichiro Koizumi may have visited the Yasukuni Shrine, but during his five and a half years in office as the Prime Minister, he didn't advocate a single anti-China policy. And he was very actively involved in the Boao Forum for Asia – the so-called Davos of Asia, organized by the Chinese government.

Even the current Prime Minister Nado is in no way an "anti-China" figure. He is a particularly careful and wise politician. He has a rule to follow Foreign Ministry recommendations at all times, to avoid friction within Japan. Beijing might feel threatened by the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (TPP) promoted by President Obama, but China is overreacting.

The TPP is designed to limit China's influence in the region, and Japan's decision to participate is a major coup for the US. It was one of the major themes that Nado and Obama discussed at APEC, but it was not the only thing that differed from Nado's meeting with Hu.

After the opening words, Prime Minister Noda told the American president about the Japanese government's decision to participate in TPP negotiations. Two leaders mutually complimented the other country's foresight. President Obama welcomed Japan to join the TPP, and, unlike China's leader, he was all smiles.

America used APEC as chance to pronounce that it was once again "master of Asia-Pacific". The US might have had sharp words at the summit, but it reminds me of a Japanese proverb: "A good dog does not bark, but a barking dog is not necessarily a fierce one."

China should remain calm. It can easily tell the world that the TPP is a non-event. After all, China is the biggest economic entity in East Asia, so without its participation, what use is a free trade zone?

China should also not feel threatened by Japan. The reason why Mr. Noda is clinging closely to the U.S. is because he has no confidence in an independent Japanese diplomacy. President Hu should face Mr. Noda with a smile of mercy; just like China's appeasing and charitable attitude towards North Korea.

When the young Hu Jintao received the group of 3000 Japanese youth delegates in 1984, Japan was a full-grown adult, both economically and in international status, while China was still pubescent. But 27 years later, that young child has grown into strong adult, while Japan has been reduced to an old man.

All China needs to do when dealing with Japan today is to apply traditional Confucianism – respect for the elderly.

Kondo, a former Japanese magazine editor, writes the E.O."s "View from Japan" column, and is the Vice General Manager of Kodansha Culture Co. in Beijing.

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