China and Japan reconcile over dinner

Photo by Anisia

Photo by Anisia

Of course they reached an agreement. What other choice did they have? The latest Sino-Japanese conflict lasted less than a month and is now in the past. But it leaves Russia wondering whether a new Cold War between the U.S. and China is looming on its eastern borders and how it can be prevented.

Chinese and Japanese negotiators stopped their wrangling Monday night in Brussels (of all places), on the sidelines of an ASEM summit. This acronym stands for Asia-Europe Meeting, and, as the name suggests, resolving intra-Asian conflicts is not quite what the organizers had in mind when establishing this forum.

As the dispute reached its climax, the two sides said they would not meet during the UN Millennium Development Goals summit in New York on September 20-22. And ahead of the Brussels forum, officials in Tokyo announced that there were no plans for a separate meeting with Chinese Prime Minister Wen Jiabao. However, aides arranged for Wen and his Japanese counterpart, Naoto Kan, to bump into each other after a dinner for all the 48 participants. Standing face to face in the corridor (incidentally, the rest 46 participants have not been noticed there), the two men, full and happy, agreed in no time to put their territorial dispute over the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islands behind them. Of course, it was not quite this simple. China had previously released four Japanese detainees and promised not to obstruct bilateral trade in order to pave the way for this deal. But the dispute over the islands remains unresolved to this day, and there are no signs it will be settled any time soon.

Ironically, territorial disputes tend to be forgotten when those involved get along well on other fronts. But they rear their ugly head again as soon as the relationship sours.

The latest conflict between Tokyo and Beijing was sparked by the captain of a Chinese trawler who had been caught by Japanese coastal guards in Japan's territorial waters. It did not appear to be a premeditated act of trespassing. The man must have sincerely believed he was on his own turf. But the incident shows that not all is well in Sino-Japanese relations and there are new problems looming on the horizon in East Asia, including the dormant controversy over North Korea's nuclear weapons programs.

Another alarming signal came in late July this year, from Southeast Asia. Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi sparked controversy at the ASEAN forum in Hanoi by allegedly trying to cut the region's smaller nations down to size. And the controversy surrounding his remarks has been simmering since.
In the South China Sea, territorial disputes are on a far greater scale than those that plague the bilateral relations between China and Japan. Some of the Spratly Archipelago's islands, for instance, are claimed by multiple nations, including China.

Southeast Asian nations have been able to neutralize such disputes quite successfully so far, acting according to the formula "war on paper, cooperation at sea." But the Chinese minister allegedly attempted to disrupt that status quo in July, saying that his country is bigger than its neighbors, or something along these lines. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stepped in to defend the "smaller neighbors," and an outraged Yang walked out in response.

An analysis of the background suggests, quite predictably, that Chinese diplomats know better than to display aggression at high-level international meetings. The narrative must have been cooked up after the Hanoi forum. Indeed, none of its participants remember anything of the kind taking place. And the unusually intensive circulation of this story in the media also casts doubts on its veracity.

It looks like the U.S. diplomatic establishment is trying to create a reputation of China as being too pushy in its territorial claims. The United States has begun its declared "return to Asia" by urging nations who happen to be at odds with China over disputed territories to rally behind it. And so the subsequent outbreak of the long-standing Sino-Japanese conflict over the Senkaku islands came in very handy - as a graphic illustration of China's alleged abrasiveness.

Interestingly, the George W. Bush administration never went down this path in its relations with China. On the contrary, it managed to hammer out a U.S.-Chinese partnership, albeit a rather awkward and clumsy one. But his predecessor, Bill Clinton, had pursued a deterrence policy vis-a-vis China. Former members of Clinton's team who are now working with Obama look set to revive that course of the 1990s.

If the aim behind U.S. strategies is, indeed, to prevent China from getting stronger, both Bush's and Clinton's policies are doomed to fail. At some point, it looked like Obama would suggest some third way. But now it is clear he will not stray from the beaten path on Chinese issues.

And then again, Obama's "groundbreaking" course will not be effective if it boils down to pursuing old goals with new, less heavy-handed methods. For his policy to work, the goals and objectives themselves need to be changed. But U.S. voters do not seem ready for any radical change now, and the congressional mid-term elections are just around the corner. If the Republicans manage to take their revenge on the Democrats this November, all of Obama's policies, including foreign, will be paralyzed.

Russia's contacts with China and other Asian countries have been quite intensive of late. President Dmitry Medvedev met with top Chinese officials during his recent official visit to Beijing. Other important Asia-related events are expected before the end of this year — an APEC summit in Japan, a Russia-ASEAN summit in Hanoi, a presidential visit to India, and a session of the G20 in Seoul, among others. And at all of these get-togethers, Russia will have to take a clear stand on the looming confrontation.

Every Asian country seeking to protect itself against the growing influence of China, and the United States will inevitably turn to Russia for support. This will enable Moscow to strike new deals in Asia and get some new, lucrative contracts.

If it pushes too hard in its efforts to derail China, the United States will eventually find itself confronted by enemies, including Japan. The latter's new truce with China is a result of pragmatic policies, as Japanese politicians understand perfectly well that the economy of "the Middle Country" is vital to the well-being of all its Asian neighbors, as well as to Russia's. But the international influence of the United States is just as crucial, so it just makes no sense to choose between the two any more.

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