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Xi Jinping succeeded in having Moon Jae-in endorse his vision of "a community with a shared future for humanity" but did not push the envelope with Shinzo Abe. (Nikkei Montage/Source photo by Reuters/ Kyodo) 
China up close

In 'Three Kingdoms' rivalry, China's waltz with Japan is temporary

Xi ready to step off dance floor when domestic politics dictate

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer | China

TOKYO -- In an exciting flurry of Asian diplomacy that also made clear the harsh reality of international politics, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and South Korean President Moon Jae-in visited China this week.

Most symbolic was the venue for a trilateral meeting that was hosted by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang. The city of Chengdu, in Sichuan Province, is widely known as the capital of the ancient kingdom of Shu, which alongside Wei and Wu constituted the Three Kingdoms that battled or sometimes formed alliances during the 3rd century.

The Chengdu gathering made one wonder if the modern-day diplomatic maneuvering between Japan, China and South Korea, as well as another player who was not in China this week, the U.S., resembles the spectacular maneuvering between the big powers back in the day.

The first surprise of the week came on Monday afternoon, when Moon met Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing before heading off to Chengdu.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry said Moon told Xi that "both Hong Kong affairs and issues concerning Xinjiang are China's internal affairs," and that with a time-honored history of exchanges and shared cultural roots, South Korea and China "form a community of shared future."

Chinese media immediately carried the news, and ordinary Chinese were delighted to read about the remarks on their smartphones.

Meanwhile, according to the account given by South Korea's presidential office, Moon was simply "listening well" to Xi's explanations about the Hong Kong and Uighur issues. But Seoul did not file a protest over Beijing's portrayal of what happened. South Korea thus gave a silent nod to China's wishes.

It was as if to reflect the current balance of power between the countries.

A rally against alleged Chinese persecution of Uighurs in Hong Kong. Moon's surprise statement that "both Hong Kong affairs and issues concerning Xinjiang are China's internal affairs," was carried by Chinese media.    © Kyodo

Possibly as a reward, the Moon-Xi summit, and not the Abe-Xi summit that took place the same day, was the top story on state-run China Central Television's main news program on Monday evening and then made the front page of the People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, on Tuesday.

Naturally, Xi also brought up the Hong Kong and Uighur issues when he met Abe a few hours after Moon, and warned that both are "China's internal affairs."

But Abe expressed deep concerns over the situation in Hong Kong and called for restraint and an early resolution of the situation. Abe also urged China to give a "transparent" explanation about the human rights conditions of Uighurs.

As for Xi's pet coin phrase "a community with a shared future for humanity," it did not come up at the Japan-China summit.

The "shared future" slogan is something that China has been trying to fit into the "fifth political document" that is being prepared for signatures in April, when Xi is scheduled to visit Japan as a state guest.

Xi has advocated a "shared future for humanity" and the "Belt and Road" as a package. Both are key phrases in China's global strategy in Xi's new era.

With the top leader's reputation at stake, China cannot compromise easily on the issue of including the first phrase in the fifth document with Japan.

But this time around, the Chinese side did not push the envelope, fully understanding the delicate situation on the Japanese side.

The Japanese and Chinese leaders instead agreed on a "shared responsibility for peace and stability in Asia and the world."

The Chinese side settled for that expression based on the slightly stretched interpretation that "responsibility for peace" was a similar concept to "a community with a shared future for humanity."

From left, South Korean President Moon Jae-in, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe seen walking in Chengdu, Sichuan Province, on Dec. 24.   © China Daily/ Reuters

Looking at the two summits Xi held, one Chinese source familiar with Beijing's Asia diplomacy gave a thumbs-up to the president's performance in regard to South Korea.

"He did a good job of winning Moon over," the source said, noting that the South Korean leader's political issues at home played a part.

In addition to a slumping economy, Moon is under pressure over the case of close aide and former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, for whom South Korean prosecutors on Monday sought an arrest warrant over abuse of authority allegations.

For China, having Moon refer to the Hong Kong and Uighur issues as "China's internal affairs" as well as giving his blessing to the "shared future for humanity" concept, was a significant diplomatic coup.

Bad relations between Japan and South Korea also worked in China's favor. Now that South Korea's relations with Japan are in dire straits, Moon would naturally tilt toward China.

How about China's diplomacy with Japan?

This time, Abe visited China to attend the trilateral summit with Premier Li and Moon in Chengdu. Strictly speaking, Abe was not a guest invited by Xi.

Nevertheless, Xi entertained Abe by hosting a dinner for him. Li also inspected the Dujiangyan irrigation system in Sichuan, a World Heritage site, with Abe on Wednesday. Abe was treated warmly in China.

But the Chinese side has not let its guard down. This is because no final decision has been made on Xi's state visit to Japan. Nor has the wording of the fifth political document been agreed to.

In Japan, whether Xi should be treated as a "state" guest is causing controversy on both sides of the political aisle.

A Hokkaido University professor detained in China was released recently. But 10 other detained Japanese nationals have yet to return home. This is a big hurdle to creating a favorable atmosphere for Xi's Japan visit.

Even among the opposition, the views are harsh. The Japanese Communist Party in November adopted a party platform containing criticism of China.

The party has slammed China for hegemonism, lashed out at it over the Hong Kong and Uighur issues, and called it out for its official vessels' continuous intrusions into territorial waters around the Japanese-administered Senkaku Islands.

China, shrewd in its diplomacy, will always keep open the option of canceling Xi's Japan visit at the last minute.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe pressed Chinese President Xi Jinping to exercise restraint in Hong Kong and to give a "transparent" explanation about the human rights conditions of Uighurs.   © Reuters

This week's meetings with Abe and Moon were a play by Xi, who has been put on his back foot by U.S. President Donald Trump, to bring two neighbors closer to China.

It comes amid a sharp slowdown in China's economy.

The Tuesday edition of the People's Daily published a short article about China's dire tax revenues. Placed in the right corner of it's front page, the article says that tax revenues edged up 0.5% in the first 11 months of this year on a year-on-year basis.

The anemic growth rate was so out of line with an earlier announcement that the country's economy grew 6% in the July-September quarter, that the 0.5% figure was left out of the headline.

Having Japan and South Korea be sympathetic to China would benefit Beijing significantly on the diplomatic, security and economic fronts.

Trying to throw a diplomatic curveball, China urged Japan to agree to a partial easing of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.

But persuading Japan to break away from the U.S. and side with a proposal jointly submitted by China and Russia is a tall order. Nevertheless, the pitch was made during Abe's visit. It was a blatant bid to rattle the Japan-U.S. alliance.

Since Xi became China's top leader in 2012, Japan and China have carefully and slowly walked toward repairing ties. Now seven years after Xi took over as No. 1, and following the constitution revision last year to scrap presidential term limits, China desires an updated slogan to describe relations with Japan.

Beijing is seeking a relationship fit for Xi's new era. And that is why it was they that floated the idea of a fifth political document.

Meanwhile, Japan sees no pressing need to replace the fourth political document signed in 2008 during former President Hu's visit to Japan. The key phrase enshrined in that document was a "strategic, mutually beneficial relationship."

If a new slogan were to be formed, it would be meaningless if the words were not supported by the people, if it had no "soul."

The mandarins on both sides will in effect have to work out a new philosophy in the next three months.

U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally in Hershey, Pennsylvania. Whether Trump wins reelection will in part determine China's stance on Japan.    © Reuters

There is one more thing Japan should prepare for. China's enthusiasm about improved ties with Japan will certainly cool sooner or later.

The gains made in Hu's much touted visit in 2008 quickly collapsed, with relations plunging to their lowest point four years later as a wave of protests swept across China, targeting Japanese companies.

Xi's planned Japan visit, the Tokyo Olympics, whether Trump will win reelection, whether China-U.S. tensions will settle down and whether the Chinese economy will hit bottom are all issues that will significantly affect the future of Sino-Japanese relations.

That is the "Three Kingdoms" world that Japan, the U.S. and China live in today.

The honeymoon period between Japan and China comes with a shelf life. Unfortunately for Japan, Xi and Chinese politics will determine the sell-by date. That is the cold reality of realpolitik.

Katsuji Nakazawa is a Tokyo-based senior staff writer and editorial writer at Nikkei. He has 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.

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