The Hangzhou G20 Summit and Developments in Sino-Japanese Relations


As host of this year’s G20 summit, China deployed adroit diplomacy to keep the South China Sea from coming up as a discussion topic. Meanwhile it continues to vigorously press its claim to Japan’s Senkaku Islands. Japan should conduct strategic PR to convey its message directly to the Chinese people.

When Chinese President Xi Jinping met with Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzō on the evening of September 5, 2016, following the conclusion of the Group of Twenty summit in Hangzhou, his visage was stern and unsmiling. And as the two leaders stood next to each other in front of the cameras, Xi momentarily turned his gaze in the opposite direction from Abe.

The propaganda department of the Communist Party of China presented Abe as an unwelcome guest. This was clear from the following morning’s issue of the People’s Daily, the CPC’s party organ. The second page was filled with news about President Xi’s meetings with five foreign leaders, including South Korean President Park Geun-hye, British Prime Minister Theresa May, and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as well as Japanese Prime Minister Abe. But while the photos of Xi shaking hands with the other leaders showed the two countries’ flags in the background, the photo with Abe was taken with just a wall behind them.

In the video clips shown on China Central Television (CCTV), the national broadcasting network, viewers saw Xi meeting with foreign leaders in a room featuring a huge painting of Hangzhou and its adjoining West Lake, displaying the scenic beauty of the place called China’s “heaven on earth.” In front of the painting were two pairs of flags of each country. The table across which the leaders faced each other was decorated with plants, and the seats in which they sat were sumptuous. But the meeting with Abe was an exception: It was held in a somber room with a plain table and chairs.

Furthermore, at the meeting with Abe, Xi was not accompanied by the two Politburo members in his innermost circle of advisers, Central Policy Research Office Director Wang Huning and CPC General Office Director Li Zhanshu, who were present at all the other bilateral sessions. This was the same sort of staging as at Xi’s two previous meetings with Abe. As one Chinese government official explained, “The meeting was unofficial, and improvement in bilateral ties has not yet been achieved.” The arrangements for the session reflected this.

Going All Out to Ensure a Successful G20 Summit

For Xi, however, having a meeting with Abe on the occasion of the G20 summit was definitely on the agenda. Thus it was that he had Foreign Minister Wang Yi make his first trip to Japan in the three and a half years since assuming his post.

Foreign Minister Wang serves Xi as a convenient envoy, a talented actor who changes his expression depending on the state of relations with the other country and on circumstances within China and within the CPC.

One example of Wang’s ability to read the changing winds within the Xi administration can be seen in his contrasting behavior vis-à-vis Japan:  Around three years ago, when Sino-Japanese relations were at their frostiest, he avoided greeting Japan’s Foreign Minister Kishida Fumio at international conferences where they were both in attendance, and he made a point of keeping his distance from Kishida so as not to be caught by cameras in the same shot. He knew that if a photo of him together with Kishida were to show up on the Internet and circulate within China, he was sure to come under criticism from various quarters. But when he visited Japan late in August this year, just before the G20 summit, he put on a smiling face for the photographers.

This was entirely for the sake of making the G20 summit a success. The Chinese needed to keep Prime Minister Abe from striking a discordant note as the leader who has been at the forefront of criticism of China’s posture in the South China Sea. So in his dealings with the Japanese side, Foreign Minister Wang pursued active diplomacy to pave the way for a bilateral summit, and at the same time he did not neglect to remind the press corps in Tokyo that when a host shows hospitality to a guest, the guest must reciprocate by going along with the host. He was warning that Japan needed to observe China’s decision not to make the South China Sea a topic of discussion at the G20 gathering.

On July 12, an international tribunal in the Hague issued a blanket rejection of China’s broad territorial claims in the South China Sea, creating a diplomatic crisis for the Xi administration. More than any previous leader of the People’s Republic of China, President Xi, who has been calling for pursuit of the “Chinese dream,” has been heightening nationalistic sentiment by stressing China’s historical humiliation of having been robbed of its territory and sovereignty, and he has made the achievement of maritime power status—including an uncompromising stance on China’s claim to the Senkaku Islands and to much of the South China Sea—a plank of party policy. But the pursuit of great power status led to an undesired outcome, alarming China’s neighbors and pushing the Philippines to bring its case against China to an international tribunal, an arbitration panel set up under the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea. If Xi were to yield to the tribunal’s ruling and surrender China’s claims, he could come under attack from within the party as a traitor. It would be an act of political suicide.

The G20 was a forum at which China might have found itself hit with criticism on an international stage, but the Chinese leadership knew that it could also be turned into a positive opportunity. So the Chinese focused their diplomatic efforts on initiatives to keep the South China Sea issue from being raised in Hangzhou and to render the tribunal’s ruling ineffective.

Xi held his meeting with US President Barack Obama, a leader of increasingly lame-duck status, at the West Lake State Guesthouse. This was the site of the 1972 meeting between President Richard Nixon and Premier Zhou Enlai, a historic encounter that transformed the inimical relationship between the United States and the People’s Republic of China. After their meeting and dinner, the two leaders took a nighttime stroll beside the lake. Xi asked Obama if he was still exercising, adding a soft note to the stiff talks between them. And the Chinese demonstrated their strong interest in good relations with the United States by arranging for the two countries to simultaneously ratify the Paris Agreement on climate change. They thereby succeeded at projecting the image of a responsible great power, while drawing attention away from the South China Sea.

Provocative Incursions in the East China Sea

How about China’s approach to Japan? Following the July 12 ruling from the Hague tribunal, the Xi administration stepped up its diplomatic offensive. Premier Li Xeqiang agreed to meet with Prime Minister Abe on July 15, when they were attending the Asia-Europe Meeting in Mongolia, and 10 days later Foreign Minister Wang met with Kishida in Laos, where the Association of Southeast Asian Nations was holding a round of meetings. And the Chinese invited Japan’s Vice-Minister for Foreign Affairs Sugiyama Shinsuke to Beijing. But the Chinese efforts failed to produce any change in Japan’s insistence on strict adherence to the ruling of the international tribunal. It was against this backdrop that the Chinese resorted to the unusual provocation of sending a large number of coast guard vessels and fishing boats into the waters around the Senkakus in the East China Sea starting on August 5. According to Chinese diplomatic sources, the leaders in Beijing had become angry with the Japanese government’s criticisms on the South China Sea issue and, fearing a possible loss of cohesion within the CPC, decided to adopt a hard line toward Japan, sending a big fishing fleet to the Senkakus for the fishing season there—and also dispatching government vessels there under the guise of protecting the fishers.

The Chinese authorities took this action with some nervousness. They are strongly conscious of the US moves to back up Japan in defense of the Senkakus. And they restricted domestic coverage of the dispatch of the fishing fleet to avoid fanning the flames of nationalism and causing public opinion to heat up beyond control.

As a result of this provocation, though, the Senkakus became a more urgent issue for Japan. Speaking to the press in Tokyo, Foreign Minister Wang made no mention of the South China Sea, but he raised the topic of the East China Sea—the Senkakus—himself. At a press conference following his meeting with Kishida at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, his comments on this topic were upbeat: “The two countries have reached a common understanding on controlling maritime friction through efforts on both sides. We can launch high-working level consultations on maritime issues and operate a maritime and aerial contact mechanism [to avoid contingencies] at an early stage.”

The idea of setting up this sort of mechanism was proposed by Abe when he met with Xi in Beijing in November 2014, and it became the subject of serious talks, but the Chinese side had been holding back from its development. In response to a reporter’s question about when the mechanism could start operating, however, Wang offered an optimistic assessment, declaring that the remaining problems were small and the two sides should be able to reach accord in short order.

At the bilateral summit in Hangzhou, Abe told Xi that the unusual activities by Chinese government vessels and military forces in the East China Sea were extremely regrettable; Xi’s response was that the two countries should join in protecting the peace and stability of the East China Sea, dealing with the issues appropriately through dialogue. This showed two aspects of Xi’s thinking.

First, the flexibility he exhibited regarding the Senkakus at his meeting with Abe in Hangzhou was predicated on his having heeded the voices of the military and other hard-liners toward Japan by applying pressure on Japan’s effective control of the islands with the provocative fleet dispatch. Second, he achieved a certain success in shifting the focus of the bilateral talks from the South China Sea to the East China Sea.

But Xi also warned Abe that Japan should restrain its words and deeds with respect to the South China Sea, and he had China’s state-run media report on his firm stance toward Japan.

The CPC Displays Its Vision of the International Order

In China, the actual conduct of foreign policy is considered less important than the way in which it is presented to the domestic public. For example, at the great hall of the Hangzhou International Expo Center, the leaders of major countries, including President Obama, Russian President Vladimir Putin, and Prime Minister Abe, walked one by one along a red carpet to shake hands with President Xi, who stood waiting in the middle of the hall, and this greeting ceremony was broadcast live on CCTV. To viewers both in China and abroad, the scene was reminiscent of a Chinese emperor, ruler of the world’s “Middle Kingdom,” granting an audience to visitors from surrounding countries. And when the opening ceremony concluded, the participants walked to the meeting room in a procession led by Xi and Putin. This represented the world order as envisaged by the CPC.

China’s national Xinhua News Agency carried an opinion piece, “World Acclaims China’s ‘Prescription,’” declaring that China is the country to rescue the global economy in a time of rising uncertainty. The priority was less on the G20 summit as an international conference than on its presentation as an international stage for China, for the CPC, and for Xi Jinping.

By scheduling his meeting with Abe—which was the focus of international attention— after the conclusion of the G20 summit, Xi aimed to keep the South China Sea issue from coming into the limelight during the G20 talks. And by having the national media feature the low-grade level of Abe’s treatment in comparison to that received by other leaders, the Xi administration, which is conscious of the persistence of strong anti-Japanese sentiment among the Chinese public, implicitly delivered the message that Abe was an unwelcome guest.

The Global Times, a newspaper affiliated with the People’s Daily, offered this assessment of the meeting between Xi and Abe: “’Confrontation with China’ is a virtually comprehensive principle of Japanese diplomacy; Japan opposes whatever China supports. This is the impression held by an extremely large number of Chinese, and public opinion in China is gradually losing confidence and interest in the improvement of Sino-Japanese relations.”

Following the G20 summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang held bilateral meetings with various other leaders on the occasion of the ASEAN summit and related sessions in Vientiane, Laos. China’s advance efforts at persuasion paid off, and the outcome was just what China had desired. President Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines refrained from raising the matter of the favorable ruling his country had won in its case against China at the tribunal in the Hague, and there was a clear sense that the strategy of the United States and Japan to isolate China had become stalemated.

Politics Trumps Law Both Domestically and Internationally

At the meetings in Hangzhou and Vientiane, China displayed the adroitness of its diplomacy, which has won over not just members of ASEAN but also European countries. The Xi administration’s ambitious expansionist maritime strategy in the East China and South China Seas, pursued with no heed to international rules, is congruent to its domestic policies aimed at ruthlessly repressing dissent by gagging free speech and arresting lawyers who advocate human rights. This reveals the true nature of the current regime in Beijing. We must recognize that Xi’s underlying logic is one of prioritizing political interests over the rule of law, a logic that China is applying both at home and internationally.

One Japanese diplomat declares, “China has altogether too many taboos. One of them is the relationship with Japan. We need to think seriously about how to deliver Japan’s message directly to the Chinese people.” Underlying this statement is the fact that the party’s tightening of restraints on free expression and the state-owned media’s dissemination of propaganda make it hard for people in China to get an accurate picture of Japan and of the bilateral relationship.

Another Japanese diplomat, who concurs that there are too many taboo areas in China, expresses this concern: “When people from the Japanese side raise the issue of the South China Sea at forums with private-sector Chinese academics, the latter merely spout their government’s official line, and that’s the end of the discussion. Restraints keep many things from being reported in China, and so the experts on the two sides are unable to share a common base of information.”

How can we counter the CPC’s propaganda and get the Chinese people to see Japan in a positive light? With government vessels and fishing boats from China massed around the Senkakus, the strategic public relations that the Japanese government undertook in response to a recent accident in the area may provide an important hint for thinking about the future of Japan’s diplomacy toward China.

Early in the morning of August 11, a Chinese fishing boat sank in the waters near the Senkakus after colliding with a Greek-flagged freighter, and a patrol boat from the Japan Coast Guard quickly rescued the six crew members. Strangely, just after this rescue the Chinese government vessels pulled out of the contiguous zone after having been in the area for eight days, temporarily easing the incursion.

What happened in the meantime was that the Japanese embassy in Beijing uploaded a post in Chinese, along with photos, on Weibo, China’s Twitter-like social networking service, where its account has some 470,000 followers. This was quickly reposted, and the coverage of the event in Japan was transmitted to the Chinese media. Chinese netizens posted critical remarks about the absence of China’s government vessels (which were supposed to be protecting the fishers) from the rescue scene, and the Chinese authorities lost face.

China’s Foreign Ministry finally issued a statement about the accidental sinking that evening, but it contained no reference to the Japanese rescue. Three hours later, however, the ministry released a revised version, adding words of praise for Japan’s cooperation and humanitarian spirit. It is unusual for the Chinese Foreign Ministry to issue two statements on the same issue; diplomatic sources suggest that the matter was referred to the top leadership, which decided on a change of course.

Doubtless the Chinese government was concerned about the possibility that if large numbers of its government vessels and fishing boats continued to operate around the Senkakus, the situation could escalate and lead to a contingency before the G20 summit. Japan’s clever strategic PR following the fortuitous occurrence of the rescue operation helped defuse the tense situation in bilateral relations.

A Japanese diplomat explains the conduct of strategic PR in Sino-Japanese relations: “It will be important to set forth the truth about Japan and Sino-Japanese relations in China’s online opinion media and change perceptions of Japan among more Chinese people.”

(Originally written in Japanese and published on September 27. Banner photo: President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Abe Shinzō hold a meeting on September 5, 2016, following the G20 summit in Hangzhou. ©AFP/Jiji.)

diplomacy China South China Sea Senkaku Islands