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Japan, China Heads of State Meet amid Dueling Trump Charm Offensives

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Chinese President Xi Jinping had what Reuters calls an “impromptu” meeting at this weekend’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) conference. Both sides issued tepid but cordial statements as the heads of state jockey for a favorable relationship with the incoming Trump White House.

China’s state-run Global Times publication described the meeting as a “brief talk … at the request of the Japanese side,” citing Chinese officials. “President Xi Jinping stated clearly China’s principled position on developing Sino-Japan relations,” a Chinese government spokesman said of the meeting, yielding little regarding the discussion, other than to give the impression that it went well.

The South China Morning Post notes that China’s version of events differs in some significant ways from that of the Japanese government. An Abe spokesman made the meeting appear to be an unplanned meeting resulting in friendly small talk, not a political meeting at Abe’s request. The Post quotes spokesman Yasuhisa Kawamura as saying the heads of state “stepped a couple of paces towards each other” in “a natural movement.”

Japanese Deputy Cabinet Secretary Kotaro Nogami provided the most detailed description of the talk among those who have publicly confirmed it. Nogami alleged that Abe enthusiastically invited Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to Japan, telling Xi he sought to establish a “stable and good relationship.” Xi, Nogami claimed, replied that he was “impressed” that Abe hoped to improve bilateral ties.

China and Japan are historical rivals in the region, with deep-seeded distrust stemming from Japan’s military belligerence during World War II. Abe, a nationalist who has sought to reinvigorate Japan’s defense capabilities, has long irked Beijing, and if he “impressed” Xi this weekend, Chinese Communist state publications are not reporting it.

Instead, China’s People’s Daily is featuring a piece on its front page criticizing Abe and his party for attempting to amend the Japanese Constitution to allow Tokyo to keep a conventional military and not merely a “self-defense” force. Calling Abe’s Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) “underhanded,” the People’s Daily describes Abe’s support for a more robust military – technically, any military at all – a “brazen violations of Japan’s pacifist pledge.”

While the underlying causes of tension between Xi and Abe – both Japan’s imperial history and Communist China’s aggression regarding Japanese territory in the East China Sea – remain, the leaders now find themselves in a new rivalry, competing for the ear of President-elect Donald Trump. Abe beat Xi and every other world leader to meeting Trump in person last week, when Trump hosted Abe for an hour-long meeting in New York. Abe said the meeting convinced him that “Mr. Trump is a leader with whom I can have full confidence.”

The Global Times was quick to criticize Abe for meeting with Trump. “Abe chose to seek US support to contain China and reform Japan’s pacifist constitution out of its fear of a rising China, with an aim of making Japan a bigger political power in the world,” the propaganda arm argued. “However, this zero-sum mentality ensures that Japan will have to take on the role of the US’ ‘little brother.’”

While Xi did not meet Trump personally on his way to Peru for the APEC summit, the Global Times protest does not erase the fact that Xi did engage Trump in a post-election conversation, reportedly hoping to establish productive diplomatic ties. Xi spoke to Trump last week from Beijing in a conversation in which the Chinese leader reportedly established a “clear sense of mutual respect” with the new American head of state. The two agreed to meet as soon as their schedules allowed.

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