November 13, 2017 8:00 am JST
China up close

Xi Jinping's eyes were fixed on Trump's visit to emperor

Chinese leader may choose to visit Japan before the abdication

KATSUJI NAKAZAWA, Nikkei senior staff writer

Emperor Akihito meets with U.S. President Donald Trump at the Imperial Palace in Tokyo on Nov. 6.

TOKYO -- In China, a pair of eyes might have been aching to take a peek at Donald Trump last week while the U.S. president was meeting with Japanese Emperor Akihito -- those of Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko on the morning of Nov. 6 greeted Trump and his wife, Melania, at the entrance of their residence inside the Imperial Palace. Trump was making his first visit to Japan since taking office in January.

One reason Xi would have liked to have kept tabs on the meeting is because he is considering his own visit to Japan.

If Xi were to meet with Emperor Akihito, it would be the second time for the two to sit down together. Xi's first visit to the Imperial Palace came in December 2009, when Xi was vice president.

That was a last-minute affair that skirted a Japanese requirement for foreign dignitaries to apply at least a month in advance if they wish to meet with the emperor.

The unusual meeting came under fire in Japan as a "special exception meeting," one realized only after Ichiro Ozawa, then the secretary general of the Democratic Party of Japan, pushed hard for it. The DPJ was in power at the time.

For Xi, the meeting was of great political significance.

He had already emerged as the front-runner in the race to succeed Hu Jintao as the Chinese Communist Party's general secretary in the autumn of 2012 and then as Chinese president the following spring. But there was still a possibility that Li Keqiang, who had previously been seen as the most likely candidate to be China's next leader, would achieve a come-from-behind victory. He did not and currently serves as Chinese premier.

The meeting with the emperor helped Xi solidify his position as the heir apparent to Hu. Tokyo agreed to set aside the application process so Xi could save face.

The meeting lasted much longer than initially planned. The emperor is said to have not let Xi leave, enjoying the conversation.

At the time, Xi attached particular importance to the meeting -- a sentiment that would grow stronger in 2011.

That August, then-Vice President Xi hosted his U.S. counterpart Joe Biden on a six-day get-to-know-you tour in China, which included a visit to the inland city of Chengdu. Biden was scheduled to travel to Mongolia and Japan next. During Biden's time in China, Xi asked Biden's entourage if the U.S. vice president had plans to meet the emperor in Japan as he had done himself. "No, not this time," Biden's aide replied. Xi is said to have seemed pleased with the answer.

It is the little things that matter in diplomacy. It is not difficult to imagine that Xi felt he had outperformed his U.S. counterpart.

To bow or not to bow

Chinese media noted that Trump never bowed to Emperor Akihito. When former U.S. President Barack Obama visited the emperor at the Imperial Palace in November 2009, he approached the Emperor with a deep bow as well as a handshake. But Obama's respectfulness drew criticism from some U.S. Republicans. Obama is a Democrat, Trump a Republican.

When Xi visited Emperor Akihito in December 2009, he also bowed. Although there are no official photos or images of the scene, Xi's deep bow at the Imperial Palace's meeting room could be seen as a reflection in a glass door, albeit not clearly.

Xi was exercising good manners, but he too came under criticism by conservative elements in his own country for downgrading himself despite being next up to lead China.

With the Chinese Communist Party's quinquennial national congress behind him, Xi is formulating his diplomatic calendar. As for diplomacy with neighbor Japan, the rough plan is for Premier Li Keqiang to first visit Japan by the end of the year to attend a trilateral summit between Japan, China and South Korea.

That will be followed by an official Abe visit to China. Then, if all goes well, Xi will visit Japan in either 2018 or 2019, marking the first visit by a top Chinese leader in a decade. Xi's immediate predecessor, Hu Jintao, visited Japan in May 2008.

Abe and Xi discussed the diplomatic calendar when they met on Saturday after the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation meeting in Danang, Vietnam.

Diplomatic calendar

Xi's visit will be influenced in no small part by the date of Emperor Akihito's abdication.

The Chinese leader may very well choose to visit Japan before Emperor Akihito, who turns 84 in December, steps down and his eldest son, Crown Prince Naruhito, ascends to the Chrysanthemum Throne. The date of the emperor's abdication has not been officially set.

Said one Chinese diplomatic source: "If Xi's Japan visit materializes, he will have two options regarding its timing -- before the emperor's abdication, purportedly at the end of March 2019, and after the new emperor's enthronement.

"Given Xi's sentiment, he will probably want to make his next meeting with the current emperor, of whom he has an extremely good impression. Furthermore, the current emperor visited China as many as 25 years ago, contributing to relations between China and Japan."

Other factors could also impact Xi's decision. One is Abe's desire to revise Japan's pacifist constitution, which has become more likely in the wake of the ruling coalition's sweeping victory in last month's general election.

China has been critical of this plan. Close attention should be paid to what strategy Xi pursues in relations with Japan.

Wooing Ivanka

Others in China, meanwhile, may have been closely watching someone else's recent visit to Japan. Before her father arrived, Ivanka Trump, now an adviser to the U.S. president, made her first visit to Japan.

Ivanka arrived in the country on Nov. 2 and left before her father arrived. She attended the World Assembly for Women, an international conference for the empowerment of women and related issues, in Tokyo.

Abe gave Ivanka the red-carpet treatment, hosting a dinner in her honor. Trump later expressed his gratitude to the warm hospitality his daughter received in Japan.

Ivanka's plan to join her father and go to China with him was canceled at the last minute. Something similar happened in September, when Ivanka and her husband, Jared Kushner, a senior adviser to Trump, were to visit China. That plan, too, fell apart.

News that Ivanka was set to join her father on his visit had drawn attention in China. Ivanka became a darling in China in February, when she visited the Chinese embassy in Washington to celebrate Chinese New Year.

Then, in early April, when Xi and Trump held their first summit at the latter's posh Mar-a-Lago estate in Florida, it was Ivanka and Kushner that greeted Xi and his wife, Peng Liyuan at the door.

On that occasion, Ivanka's two young children -- a daughter and her little brother -- sang the popular Chinese folk song "Mo Li Hua (Jasmine Flower)" for the Chinese guests.

Images of Trump and his family entertaining Xi and Peng went viral in China, triggering a rise in Ivanka's popularity in the country.

But what Xi heard at the end of dinner that night was not music to his ears.

Just before Ivanka's children sang for Xi, the U.S., under Kushner's initiative, launched air strikes in Syria. It was only as the dinner was nearing its end, when Trump informed Xi that the U.S. had conducted the strikes, something China was vehemently against.

Despite that humiliating experience, China this time pulled out all the stops to get Ivanka to visit the country. China believed that an Ivanka visit would help prevent trade friction between the two countries from becoming even more abrasive.

Ivanka and Kushner's September plans appeared to be nailed down in June. But that trip was later canceled due to rising tensions on the Korean Peninsula as well as to Sino-U.S. trade friction.

There was another obstacle. Ivanka has a line of jewelry and fashion items, all produced in China. The goods are also sold in China, as well as in other countries. Some U.S. critics said that an official visit to China would have served as free publicity for Ivanka's consumer brand, which would conflict with the national and presidential interests she is meant to look out for as a White House adviser.

Since its inauguration, the Trump administration has come in for criticism for allowing similar conflicts of interest to percolate as well as for the Trump campaign's dealings with Russia.

Not this time

"Ivanka apparently decided not to visit China after determining that doing so now could spark further criticism," a Chinese source said regretfully.

Even after Ivanka's September plans were canceled, the Chinese government's special team in charge of inviting Ivanka did not give up its mission. The news of her decision not to stop by after visiting Japan shocked the Chinese government.

During his joint press conference with Abe in Tokyo on Nov. 6, Trump spoke highly of China's efforts to add pressure on North Korea over that country's nuclear and missile tests. But he criticized China for racking up a huge trade surplus with the U.S.

"As far as China is concerned, my relationship, as you know, with President Xi is also excellent," Trump said. "I like him a lot. I consider him a friend. He considers me a friend."

Was Trump speaking his mind? Was he speaking strategically? Or was he giving Xi a backhanded compliment?

After visiting Japan and South Korea, Trump arrived in Beijing on Nov. 8. But, unfortunately for many Chinese, his high profile daughter was not with him.

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