Taiwan issue complicates Japan-China moves to improve ties

From left, Yoshimasa Hayashi of Japan, Park Jin of South Korea, Prak Sokhonn of Cambodia and Wang Yi of China pose for a group photo during the ASEAN Plus Three foreign ministers’ meeting in Phnom Penh on Thursday.

PHNOM PENH/BEIJING — The impact of U.S. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan spilled over into a high-level dialogue between Japan and China. A meeting between the foreign ministers of Japan and China scheduled for Thursday in Cambodia was shelved at the last minute at Beijing’s behest.

Few bright spots are left for improving Japan-China relations ahead of the 50th anniversary of the normalization of diplomatic relations on Sept. 29.

“There won’t be any talks,” said a Japanese Foreign Ministry official at around 2 p.m. Thursday in Phnom Penh.

The official had rushed into the press room for media from Japan in a hotel in the Cambodian capital to deliver the news. The media were about to head to a hotel on the outskirts of Phnom Penh to cover a bilateral meeting at 4 p.m. between Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi and his Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi.

In Tokyo, a senior ministry official responded to the news by telling reporters: “Frankly, I feel, ‘Why?’ But the other party is not one we beg for a meeting anyway.”

The official added that Japan “will continue to convey our willingness to have dialogue,” but seemed perplexed by the issue.

On Wednesday, the foreign ministers of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) Plus Three (Japan, China, South Korea) gathered in Phnom Penh for their first in-person meeting in three years. The Japanese government took the meeting as an opportunity to hold a bilateral meeting with China’s foreign minister in person for the first time in 21 months.

At the now-scrapped meeting, Japan not only wanted to express “grave concerns” over China’s military exercises near Taiwan that started Thursday, but also “wanted to communicate to help resolve outstanding issues between Japan and China,” a senior government official said.

G7 statement

For China’s part, the cancellation with Japan stemmed from a statement issued Wednesday by the foreign ministers of the Group of Seven industrial powers, which includes Japan. The G7 statement spells out concerns about China’s “threatening actions” in which Beijing has been ramping up aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait in reaction to Pelosi’s visit.

In one part of the G7 foreign ministers’ statement, it reads: “There is no justification to use a visit as pretext for aggressive military activity in the Taiwan Strait. It is normal and routine for legislators from our countries to travel internationally.”

A Japanese foreign ministry official said: “We were just pointing out the obvious: ‘We cannot tolerate acts that escalate military tensions.’ It was China that escalated the situation.”

Chief Cabinet Secretary Hirokazu Matsuno maintained Japan’s stance during a regular press conference Wednesday not to comment on Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan.

Summit possible?

There are many issues between Japan and China other than the situation in Taiwan. China Coast Guard ships have repeatedly intruded into Japanese territorial waters around the Senkaku Islands in Ishigaki, Okinawa Prefecture. On Wednesday, a Chinese military ship passed between Okinawa’s main island and Miyakojima Island.

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said that Japan “will consider” holding a summit with Chinese President Xi Jinping in preparation for the 50th anniversary of the normalization of bilateral relations. The Japanese government is expected to arrange a series of working-level dialogues to seek clues toward high-level dialogue.

A state memorial service for former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is planned for Sept. 27, just two days before the 50th anniversary, and dignitaries from around the world are set to visit Japan. Tokyo intends to use this opportunity to seek a resumption of high-level dialogue with Beijing.

Dignitaries from Taiwan, with whom Abe has personal contacts and close ties, are expected to visit Japan, too, and China is expected to react negatively to the visit of such officials.