Hillary Clinton’s meeting with 16 heads of state at the east Asia Summit in Vietnam on Saturday was supposed to be a powerful signal of the renewed engagement of the US with the region.
But on her arrival in Hanoi, the US secretary of state found herself in the midst of a flare-up in smouldering Sino-Japanese relations that eclipsed the rest of the summit. One western diplomat described China’s acrimonious outburst and last-minute cancellation of a formal meeting between the Japanese and Chinese prime ministers as an “ambush” that took Japanese diplomats completely by surprise.
Wen Jiabao, China’s premier, and Naoto Kan, the Japanese prime minister, did get together for a very brief “unofficial meeting” away from the cameras on Saturday. But that was only after Beijing had sent a strong message by cancelling what would have been the first official meeting between the two leaders since a spat that began in early September when Japan detained a Chinese fishing boat captain in disputed waters.
Delegates to the summit and analysts said Beijing’s anger and resentment appeared to be directed mostly at one man: Seiji Maehara, Japan’s newly appointed foreign minister who is regarded as a China hawk and supporter of closer ties with the United States.
Officials in the disputed Kurile Islands north of Japan were hanging out Russian flags on Sunday in expectation of a visit by Dmitry Medvedev, the Russian president, before his planned trip to Toyko, writes Charles Clover in Moscow.
The four southernmost islands in the 56 island archipelago are claimed by Japan but have been controlled by Russia since they were seized by Soviet forces at the end of the second world war. Japan has demanded that the islands be returned.
Mr Medvedev’s trip, if it goes ahead, will be seen as extremely provocative since Japan’s foreign minister warned in October that a visit by Moscow would “severely harm” relations. The visit would also contribute to speculation that Russian and China are co-ordinating actions aimed at Japan designed to test Tokyo’s resolve on territorial disputes.
Kremlin officials declined to confirm on Sunday that the long-rumoured trip was going to happen. Japan’s Kyodo news agency on Friday quoted Russian officials saying Mr Medvedev would visit the disputed islands. He had originally announced his intention to visit the islands in September but was dissuaded at that time by adverse weather. Sergei Lavrov, Russia’s foreign minister, said the possible visit was “an internal matter”. The foreign minister said: “President Medevdev himself decides which parts of the Russian Federation he will visit.” He added that there was “no link” between the possible visit and Russia-Japan relations.
Chinese analysts said Beijing had identified Mr Maehara as an obstacle in Sino-Japanese relations and was doing everything it could to undermine him since he stepped down as transport minister to take up his post.
His move came just days after the arrest of the Chinese fishing boat captain in early September. The captain was later released but not until Sino-Japanese relations had deteriorated to their lowest level in at least five years.
On Saturday an editorial in Wen Wei Bo, a pro-Beijing newspaper in Hong Kong, said it was Mr Maehara who had insisted on the arrest of the Chinese captain and called the minister a troublemaker who should be dismissed for harming Sino-Japanese relations.
“Maehara has a long history of unfriendly words and actions towards China and since the incident his irresponsible comments have not been helpful in repairing relations,” Song Zhiyong, an expert in Sino-Japanese relations at Nankai University, told the Financial Times. “It’s not up to China to recommend who Japan should appoint as their foreign minister but Maehara must change his attitude if Sino-Japanese relations are to be repaired.”
Japanese media reports have interpreted the weekend’s incidents as a reflection of Beijing’s nervousness about domestic opinion towards Japan.
Anti-Japanese protests have broken out in cities across China and Beijing is loath to show any weakness that could prompt demonstrators to direct their ire at the ruling Communist party.
The trigger for Beijing’s outburst and cancellation of the planned meeting between Mr Wen and Mr Kan appeared to be a Friday morning meeting Mr Maehara held with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi. Media reports quoted Mr Maehara afterwards as saying China had agreed to a high-level meeting and to restart talks with Tokyo over disputed gasfields in the east China Sea. Japanese officials later dismissed suggestions that he had ever made such a claim.
But Hu Zhengyue, an assistant Chinese foreign minister, accused Japan of “ruining the atmosphere” for a planned Wen-Kan summit by making “false statements” about the foreign ministers’ discussions.
Mr Hu also referred to a meeting between Mrs Clinton and Mr Maehara in Hawaii on Thursday, in which the secretary of state restated the US position that it was bound by treaties with Japan to help defend the disputed uninhabited islands at the heart of Sino-Japanese tensions.
“[Japan’s] actions before and during the summits have damaged the atmosphere between the leaders of the two countries,” Mr Hu said.
In contrast to the vitriol directed towards Mr Maehara Chinese state media said Mrs Clinton’s meetings with the Chinese foreign minister in Hanoi on Saturday and with Dai Bingguo, the Communist party official in charge of foreign affairs, were cordial and polite.
Mr Yang, the foreign minister, “urged the US to act cautiously” and “not make any irresponsible remarks” in relation to the disputed islets, known in Chinese as the Diaoyu islands and in Japanese as the Senkakus.
His meeting and the one between Ms Clinton and Mr Dai were described in Chinese official accounts as “candid and friendly” and filled with discussions about “dialogue, mutual trust and co-operation”.