BEIJING--An unusually contentious tone developed in talks between Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda and Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao on May 13 over what one senior Japanese Foreign Ministry official referred to as the “Ishihara shock.”
The two governments had tried to avoid placing undue attention on the territorial dispute over the Senkaku Islands since relations cooled after a Chinese trawler rammed two Japan Coast Guard ships in September 2010 near the islands in the East China Sea. In addition, this year marks the 40th anniversary of normalization of relations.
But such caution was effectively rendered meaningless when Tokyo Governor Shintaro Ishihara gave a speech in Washington on April 16 in which he said the Tokyo metropolitan government would buy the Senkaku Islands from the individual owner of the islands.
Ishihara’s comment was severely criticized by Chinese government officials, and Japanese officials were expecting strong comments from Wen during his meeting with Noda.
The Chinese premier indeed brought up the issue of the Senkaku Islands as well as the independence movement in the Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region.
Wen said of those two issues, "It is important to respect China's core interests and issues of major concern."
In response to Wen's argument that the Senkaku Islands were Chinese territory, Noda said, "The intensification of maritime activities by China, including in the waters near the Senkaku Islands, have stirred the emotions of the Japanese public."
The Japanese prime minister added, "It is undesirable to have this issue have an effect on the overall relationship between Japan and China."
Wen raised the Uighur issue apparently because Chinese officials were upset that an international conference of overseas Uighurs was scheduled to begin in Tokyo on May 14.
In his meeting with Wen, Noda said, "It is necessary to pursue the fundamental and universal values of the international community."
Noda suggested that a bilateral forum of ministerial bureau directors-general be used to cooperate on human rights dialogue.
Wen did not directly respond to Noda’s suggestion.
The re-emergence of the Senkaku issue also reflects the Noda administration’s lack of a clear Asian diplomatic strategy, as the prime minister has tended to emphasize Japan’s relationship with the United States.
In fact, Noda's meeting with U.S. President Barack Obama on April 30 fueled concerns in Beijing about the future path Japan was taking. Noda and Obama agreed to strengthen defense cooperation with an eye toward the maritime advances being made by China.
Before his meeting with Wen, Noda explained the contents of his meeting with Obama to South Korean President Lee Myung-bak.
"While the Japan-U.S. alliance is the cornerstone of peace and stability in the Asia-Pacific region, through such cooperative relationships as the one between Japan, South Korea and the United States, there will be a need for cooperation to deal appropriately with all forms of provocative acts and conflicts in this region," Noda told Lee.
Although Lee praised Noda for the success of his meeting with Obama, he also did not forget to reiterate Seoul's desire to resolve the issue of compensation for the "comfort women" who were forced to provide sexual services for Imperial Japanese Army troops during World War II.
The extent of Beijing’s importance on the Senkaku issue was made clear by a news report on a national Chinese TV broadcast, which emphasized Wen's insistence on respecting China's core interests and issues of major concern.
The mention of core interests shows that China will not back down on the Senkaku dispute. The term is normally reserved for such issues as Taiwan and independence movements among various ethnic minorities, such as the Uighurs and Tibetans.
Wen has been known for taking a more moderate approach on the Senkaku Islands, which China calls Diaoyutai, until now.
He may have referred to the islands as a core interest in an attempt to outflank hard-line elements among the top echelons of the Chinese leadership who are angered not only by Ishihara's comment but also the recent statement by Nagoya Mayor Takashi Kawamura denying the Nanking Massacre.
One reason to maintain a lid over such elements is the scheduled transfer of power this autumn from Chinese President Hu Jintao to Xi Jiping, the current vice president. The recent dismissal of Bo Xilai from the Politburo has fueled rumors of a major power struggle.
With Noda also facing greater political pressure within Japan, mainly over legislation to raise the consumption tax rate, Chinese officials likely calculated that there was less political risk in taking a strong stance against Noda rather than do anything that might lead to a domestic backlash.
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