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International relations

Xi Jinping's temple snub hints at Japan's drop on priority list

Beijing turns sights to Biden and Communist Party milestones

A statue of Ganjin on the path leading to Daming Temple. The monk embarked on the perilous crossing to Japan five times before finally succeeding in the eighth century. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

BEIJING -- When Chinese President Xi Jinping traveled to the city of Yangzhou on the bank of the Yangtze River in November, he chose not to visit the Daming Temple, according to a local resident familiar with the trip.

The renowned temple was headed by the Tang dynasty-era monk Jianzhen, known as Ganjin in Japanese, and is seen as a symbol of historical ties between Japan and China.

Ganjin reached Japan in the eighth century after five failed attempts, each time being blocked by rough seas and eventually losing his eyesight during the journey. He spent the rest of his life in Japan, helping spread the teachings of Buddhism and is widely admired by the Japanese to this day.

To eager China watchers, this omission seemed like a subtle signal that the Chinese leader is not so committed to his state visit to Japan, which was originally scheduled for April but was postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.

The state-run Xinhua news agency was silent on whether Xi visited Ganjin's temple. He did visit an adjacent graveyard dedicated to those who died in the Chinese Revolution, according to locals.

Daming Temple in Yangzhou is considered a symbol of the centuries-old ties between Japan and China. (Photo by Tetsushi Takahashi)

A plaque in front of a big Ganjin statue on the way to the temple describes him as a trailblazer for the China-Japan friendship.

The temple even survived the Mao Zedong-led Cultural Revolution under which religious relics and buildings across China were destroyed, as then-Premier Zhou Enlai, who valued ties with Japan, ordered its protection, said a temple staffer.

When boxes of Japanese medical supplies arrived in Wuhan, China, the initial epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic earlier this year, a Chinese poem was attached on the sides.

"Although we are in different places, we are under the same sky"

The heartfelt message was appreciated and images of the boxes went viral on Chinese social media.

It is said to be the same poem that inspired Ganjin to make the perilous journey to Japan to spread the teachings of Buddha. Prince Nagaya, the grandson of Japan's Emperor Temmu, had had it embroidered on a Buddhist stole that he sent as a gift to the Tang emperor.

A monument at the Daming Temple is inscribed with the poem.

It is unclear whether Xi skipping over a temple so rife with symbolism was simply a logistical decision, or an indication of China's overall relations with Japan.

Negotiations for a new date for Xi's state visit are currently at a standstill. The topic apparently never even came up when Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Foreign Minister Toshimitsu Motegi in Tokyo in late November.

Moreover, Wang seemed to show little concern about inflaming Japanese public sentiment -- and by extension, for ensuring that Xi's trip becomes a reality. In a joint news conference with Motegi, he blamed Japanese fishing vessels for triggering China's recent incursions into waters surrounding the Japan-administered Senkaku Islands, claimed by China as the Diaoyu.

China's top concern at the moment is the incoming U.S. administration of President-elect Joe Biden. Beijing's relations with Japan are mainly seen as a way to boost its negotiating position with the U.S. in the future, and are not a significant priority on their own.

China is also keeping a close eye on whether Suga, who took office in September, can solidify his grip on power.

"It's hard to think that Xi will visit Japan before its next general election," a Chinese diplomatic source said, echoing a common stance among those familiar with the matter. There is little motivation in Beijing to deepen ties to Tokyo at this time, especially now that the election is not expected until at least the summer.

But the biggest factor holding Xi back appears to be at home. China's Communist Party is celebrating its centennial in July 2021. Its party congress, held every five years, is also coming up in 2022. Xi is eager to strengthen his political standing so he can potentially remain in power long term, and sees little room to compromise on foreign policy issues.

Nearly 1,300 years ago, Ganjin set foot on Japanese soil on his sixth try. It is clear that Xi does not have the same passion as Ganjin did for visiting Japan.

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