Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Realpolitik and the Spinning of Summits

Newspaper article International Herald Tribune

Realpolitik and the Spinning of Summits

Article excerpt

Would the United States trade its unfettered support of Japan for support from China on dealing with North Korea?

According to a Chinese article widely circulated on the Internet, the Obama-Xi summit meeting last weekend has made Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan jealous. Published in People's Daily, the mouthpiece of the Communist Party, the article crows that President Xi Jinping got a two-day informal meeting with President Obama, while Abe's visit to Washington in February resulted in only a "lunch reception."

The People's Daily is not the only Chinese media outlet to play up the angle of Japan losing ground after the summit. Du Ping, a prominent Chinese commentator, told Phoenix TV of Hong Kong that the meeting in California made Japan worried that Obama and Xi "would reach a secret" agreement on the fate of the disputed islands in the East China Sea that Japan administers but Beijing claims as Chinese territory. An article on the Chinese news Web site The Observer was even blunter: "Japan worries the United States will betray it," and change its stance on the islands, which China calls the Diaoyu and Japan calls the Senkaku.

Of course, Chinese media commentary needs to be taken with a big dose of skepticism. Nevertheless, behind the speculation about Tokyo's miffed feelings over American-Chinese relations lie the realities of diplomatic horse-trading and the evolving demands of realpolitik. Japan has reason to be concerned that the Obama-Xi summit weakened the U.S. commitment to defending Japan, especially over the tiny islets.

In recent years, China has become increasingly aggressive in the waters to its south and east, areas that are outside of what has traditionally been its territory. Beijing has claimed ownership over a wide area of the South China Sea, including maritime and island territories claimed by five Southeast Asian nations and Taiwan. Chinese military ships have come dangerously close to firing on a Japanese naval vessel in waters near the Senkaku. The U.S. pivot to Asia, announced in late 2011, reassured many of China's neighbors of America's dedication to the region, yet China seems unwilling to back down on its territorial claims.

The summit meeting raised many questions about whether Washington's support for Japan trumps other regional interests. Will the United States continue to support Japan in its battle over a small group of islands in the East China Sea?

After the summit, the outgoing U.S. national security adviser, Thomas Donilon, told reporters that Obama pushed Xi to de-escalate tensions in the East China Sea, stating that "the parties should seek to have conversations about this through diplomatic channels and not through actions." That's far less encouraging than reiterating that the islands fall under the U.S.-Japan security treaty obligations, as Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel did in April. …

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