Hopes for Japan dialogue with new Chinese team

THE new Chinese government installed at the end of the National People's Congress on Sunday has observers around the world scrambling to analyse how the new line-up will affect the tone of China's foreign policy, particularly its frayed ties with Japan.

Viewed from Japan, the new Chinese leadership team seems to represent one part good news and one part bad. There is a particular urgency for Japan, whose worsening territorial feud with China is nudging ever closer to an apocalyptic military showdown.

To start with the good news: Mr Wang Yi's appointment as Foreign Minister was greeted in the Japanese media with a sigh of relief. A former ambassador to Tokyo, Mr Wang speaks fluent Japanese and is considered a fine connoisseur of Japan with friends from across the country's political establishment. His promotion is seen as an unmistakable sign of Beijing's will to salvage its frayed relationship with Tokyo.

But a few commentators warn that Mr Wang's Japan-friendly reputation may instead encourage a tougher-than-necessary stance on Tokyo in order to avoid suspicions at home. Nevertheless, most Japanese are happy to see a "friend" at the top of the notorious Chinese Foreign Ministry, which has led China's official verbal offensive on Japan in the territorial feud.

Missed by many Japanese analysts is that in China's particular system, the Foreign Minister is not the top diplomat - it is instead the State Councillor in charge of foreign affairs. The new State Councillor is none other than previous foreign minister Yang Jiechi, who was rather tough with Japan in the dispute.

Last year, Mr Yang shocked the Japanese by undiplomatically accusing Japan of having "stolen" the islands from China. During the last Asean summit last year, he launched an unusually harsh verbal attack on Japan, with then Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihiko Noda sitting uncomfortably across the table.

With talk of a badly needed summit meeting between the leaders, probably in May, it remains to be seen what actual policy on Japan will come out of the Yang- Wang tandem. But if the Japanese public think Mr Yang is "gone" from the picture and if they continue to ignore the new power and influence he has acquired in foreign policy, they could be in for another unpleasant surprise.

Japan is also deeply concerned about the creation of a unified Chinese "Coast Guard", which will absorb the functions of the different agencies now patrolling the seas under separate authorities. The plan calls for merging the patrolling functions of bodies such as the Fisheries Law Enforcement, Customs, Maritime Surveillance, Border Control and Maritime Safety Administration.

What worries the Japanese (and no doubt Asean countries too) is the new Chinese agency's police authority. Its ships will now, in theory, be able to arrest Japanese fishermen operating in what both sides consider their own waters around the Senkaku/ Diaoyu islands. There are already reports of Chinese government ships chasing Japanese fishing boats in that area.

The new law enforcement power would also make it possible for Chinese vessels to try and arrest Japanese Coast Guard officials in the vicinity of the disputed islands. If the Japanese side resists, which is likely, it would lead to what everyone fears: open armed conflict between Japan and China.

With such reinforced Chinese law enforcement means, and with Chinese vessels now a daily presence in the Senkaku/Diaoyu territorial waters, the Japanese fear the long-term eventuality of Beijing presenting a fait accompli of Chinese "administration" over the islands by exercising its police authority there. In fact, the Chinese can easily demonstrate their "administrative authority" merely by inspecting or making arrests of their own fishermen, not necessarily the Japanese ones.

Such a situation would very subtly rule out an American military intervention to defend the islands under the Japan-US Security Pact which obligates the US to defend islands "under Japanese administration".

So far, Japan has been administering these islands. But since the outbreak of the territorial feud with China, the Chinese have been challenging this "Japanese administration". If the Chinese end up proving to the world that the islands are no longer under the sole "administration" of the Japanese, but are also "under Chinese administration", the Americans would be legally excused for not rushing in to defend the islands against a Chinese takeover.

Apart from the unresolved territorial dispute, widespread air pollution in China, which is being blown across the sea to Japan, is another reason Tokyo urgently needs to resume dialogue with Beijing. Top-level Japanese emissary Masahiko Komura, vice-president of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party and former foreign minister with personal "channels" to China, may visit the new Chinese leadership very shortly. This visit should hopefully pave the way for a summit meeting in May between President Xi Jinping and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

stopinion@sph.com.sg

The writer is a retired French diplomat, born in Taiwan and educated in Japan, who has served in Japan, the United States, Singapore and China.