Xi’s expressive language
Chinese President Xi Jinping made it clear that Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was not welcome during the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit on Nov. 10 at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing. Xi’s face was stern and he kept Abe waiting. When they shook hands and Abe greeted him, Xi pretended he didn’t hear him. He did not look Abe in the eye throughout the entire event.
Xi’s facial expressions were so obvious that Abe’s smile disappeared. The encounter lasted less than one minute, but the meeting had significant implications. Xi is a stately figure. He knew he was making a point with his stern expressions and manners. It was even more provocative than if he had used harsh words.
During the meeting, he put pressure on Abe, saying, “The right and wrong that put the China-Japan relationship in a difficult situation are obvious.”
He basically said that Japan is responsible for the history and territorial discord between the two countries.
The facial expression is a diplomatic protest. Why did Xi act so awkwardly? It was for a special scene in the diplomatic drama starring China and Japan. Last weekend, Chinese and Japanese aides prepared to resolve their disputes. The mood changed from confrontation to cooperation, and a China-Japan summit meeting was scheduled. Korea was caught off guard. It would be their first meeting in two and half years, and a reconciliatory mood was expected.
Then Xi sought another turnaround and broke expectations. He gave Abe the cold shoulder with his facial expression and protocol. China did not display either the Chinese or Japanese flag. His message was simple: he only met with Abe because Tokyo asked for it. China defined it as “a meeting at the request of the Japanese side.”
Xi was addressing various parties with his expression. He had the anti-Japanese sentiment in China in mind and was also aware of Korea. Suh Jin-young, professor emeritus at Korea University and an expert on Chinese politics, said, “His facial expression had many purposes. He may have wanted to convey to President Park that he was sorry to meet with Abe.”
When Park and Xi had a summit meeting in July, Xi brought up the idea of jointly hosting next year’s Aug. 15 Liberation Day event, which coincides with China’s Victory of War of Resistance Against Japan Day. When he spoke at Seoul National University, he said, “Ming commander Deng Zilong was killed alongside Adm. Yi Sun-sin in the Battle of Noryang during the Imjin War.”
It was seen as a pledge to work together to pressure Japan regarding historical discord.
Four months later, China changed its position and prepared a plan for peace and security with Japan, followed by a meeting with Abe. Xi broke away from the historical alliance with Korea.
Beijing wants to hide the significant change and use a dramatic prop. Xi’s angry face was effective. Most policymakers in Korea analyzed that there would be no drastic improvement to China-Japan relations. But that’s exactly what Xi is aiming for. He wants to keep Korea pro-China and anti-Japanese, and his diplomatic tactic is seasoned.
Japan’s response is also clever. Xi’s attitude was diplomatic discourtesy, and Abe was humiliated. But Tokyo responded with composure. Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Katsunobu Kato said that Xi acted very naturally, and mainstream Japanese media interpreted it similarly.
The new Romance of the Three Kingdoms in Northeast Asia is delicate. A storm is gathering, and China and Japan are already seeking change. The driving force is the four-point agreement between China and Japan, orchestrated by Japanese National Security Advisor Shotaro Yachi and Chinese State Councilor Yang Jiechi. They are the schemers of the two countries.
The issue of Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands was left ambiguous. The two sides made a compromise; they acknowledged the difference in position and claim over the disputed islands. The agreement to disagree would inevitably lead to different interpretations. The controversy over the Yasukuni Shrine visit is left with no closure as well.
Ambiguity is the very essence of diplomacy. It is how powerful nations break the status quo on certain issues. Diplomatic language is wary of an indicative mood. China and Japan prioritized national interests over justification. China wants to break out of the image that it is dependent on military power and Japan wants to shed the image of its historical provocations.
Both countries put the economy first. We need to refine our own diplomatic strategies in Korea. The free trade agreement with China has made the two countries closer, but cooperation on historical issues is limited. China’s Northeast Project distorts Korea’s ancient history. The meeting between Xi and Abe is a lost opportunity for Korea. Korean diplomacy has lost the chance to mediate the discord between Korea and Japan, and China has gained an initiative to arrange mediation between Korea and Japan.
Peace and cooperation in Northeast Asia is President Park’s diplomatic ambition, but there are conditions to attain the goal. She cannot bypass the Korea-Japan summit. The order in Northeast Asia is highly fluid, and principles are important in diplomacy. Principles should not exclude elasticity, and her diplomacy based on principles would work better when she embraces flexibility.
JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 13, Page 35
*The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
by Park Bo-gyoon