Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He spent seven years in China as a correspondent and later as China bureau chief. He is the 2014 recipient of the Vaughn-Ueda International Journalist prize for international reporting.
TOKYO -- China's online media began issuing the first news bulletins Monday morning covering the remarks made by Vice Foreign Minister Xie Feng as he met with U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman in Tianjin.
"The China-U.S. relationship is now in a stalemate and faces serious difficulties," Xie told Sherman. "Fundamentally, it is because some Americans portray China as an imagined enemy."
"For quite some time, when talking about conflict with China and challenges facing the U.S., the 'Pearl Harbor moment' and the 'Sputnik moment' have been brought up by some Americans," he said. "The hope may be that by demonizing China, the U.S. could somehow shift domestic public discontent over political, economic and social issues and blame China for its own structural problems."
Usually, the first take on U.S.-China relations -- the most important relationship for Beijing -- comes from state-run outlets such as Xinhua News Agency and China Central Television. Having the bulletins come from online news media was unconventional.
A Chinese blog specializing in foreign affairs was the first to report Xie's Pearl Harbor remarks, in the form of a subtitled video clip. Chinese online media such as Guancha -- a newer, privately run website based in Shanghai -- cited this report, sending the information to hundreds of millions of smartphones nationwide.
The Chinese Foreign Ministry, for its part, continued to publish Xie's remarks critical of the U.S. on its website while his talks with Sherman were ongoing.
Though the Xie-Sherman meeting was held mostly in private, Beijing waged a fierce propaganda war behind the scenes in a calculated and complex manner, utilizing online media.
Guancha is described as a private media outlet, but there is little doubt that it fits into the state propaganda game plan. It published a long interview this month with a more senior Chinese vice foreign minister on U.S.-China relations.
Of China's hardline publications, the Global Times is the best known among foreign media. But the Global Times is affiliated with the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, and does not receive direct instructions from the Foreign Ministry.
The episode demonstrates that China is diversifying its ways to propagate foreign and security policies.
The key takeaway from the Tianjin meeting is that Beijing's stance toward Washington has not changed since the testy exchange among top diplomats in Alaska back in March. Yang Jiechi, a member of the Communist Party's powerful Politburo who oversees China's diplomacy, and U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken traded barbs in front of TV cameras for more than one hour at the outset of that meeting.
The Xie-Sherman gathering essentially was a "mini Alaska," attended by vice ministerial-level officials. The only difference in Tianjin is that China used domestic online media -- instead of TV cameras -- as its propaganda tool.
Yang's highly publicized remarks in Alaska that the U.S. "does not have the qualification to say that it wants to speak to China from a position of strength," proved popular with the Chinese public and became buzzwords.
This time, the key phrase was Xie's term "imagined enemy."
Xie cited Japan's attack on the U.S. base at Pearl Harbor in 1941 and the Soviet Union's launch of Sputnik 1 -- the world's first artificial satellite -- in 1957 during the Cold War, which sent shock waves through the U.S.-led Western bloc. His reference to Sputnik symbolizes the fierce U.S.-China battle for technological supremacy, including in space.
But the reference to Pearl Harbor was a warning that the U.S. should not compare China today with Japan back then.
In hindsight, without top diplomat Yang in Tianjin, no major change in policy was ever going to occur. Furthermore, the reins of China's foreign policy ultimately are held by President Xi Jinping.
The question is: As China shows it will continue to play hardball, who is the real audience? The main target is ordinary people in the country, amid a sense of rising nationalism.
This is also clear from the remarks made by Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi two days before the Tianjin gathering, where he also met with Sherman.
"If the United States has not learned to treat other countries equally, China and the international community have the obligation to help the United States make up for this lesson," Wang said Saturday.
According to the American side, Sherman's talks did not include a possible meeting between Xi and President Joe Biden on the sidelines of a leaders summit involving the Group of 20 major economies, set for Rome in October.
The Chinese side's focus on domestic propaganda reflects an expectation that the Tianjin talks would serve only as a frank exchange of views and not as a venue to produce tangible agreements.
The U.S. State Department said Sherman referred to strong American competition with China while discussing with Wang ways to manage difficult ties between the two countries. She told Wang that Washington is not seeking conflict with China, the department said.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Foreign Ministry said Wang told Sherman that Beijing has three basic demands for the U.S., representing "bottom lines" that China firmly upholds.
"First, the United States must not challenge, slander or even attempt to subvert the path and system of socialism with Chinese characteristics," Wang said. "Second, the United States must not attempt to obstruct or even interrupt China's development process."
"Third, the United States must not infringe upon China's state sovereignty, or even damage China's territorial integrity." This last portion refers to Xinjiang, Tibet, Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Though direct high-level diplomatic contacts between the U.S. and China have resumed, the outlook remains foggy.
The attack on Pearl Harbor 80 years ago changed Japan's fate. It came after Japan was cornered economically due to the ABCD encirclement.
Also known as the ABCD line, it was a Japanese name for a series of embargoes against the country by nations including America, Britain, China and the Dutch.
To be sure, the international pressure mounting on China differs in nature from the ABCD encirclement. But even some within Beijing's regime implicitly note similarities between Japan's status before Pearl Harbor and China's situation today.
Among them is Yuan Nansheng, a diplomat turned scholar who served as Chinese consul general in San Francisco and head of the Communist Party committee at China Foreign Affairs University, which trains diplomats.
In an article published last year, Yuan implicitly criticized the Xi administration's "wolf warrior diplomacy," saying that "having enemies on all sides means a failure of diplomacy."
Yuan pointed to the danger of being surrounded by enemies, citing wartime Japan as an example. Because of its attack on Pearl Harbor, Japan antagonized the U.S., the U.K., France, Australia, China and eventually even the Soviet Union.
But China shows no sign of changing its hardline stance.