The New York Times reported on Saturday that Chinese President Hu Jintao and Japanese Prime Minister Naoto Kan held their first formal talks since China and Tokyo clashed over the disputed islands in the East China Sea back in September, when, according to the Times, relations hit their lowest point in years. Recall that in September the Japanese coast guard arrested a Chinese fishing trawler captain for illegally fishing near the Senkaku islands (as they are known in Japan) and ramming a Japanese coast guard vessel. Beijing responded to the arrest by suspending diplomatic talks and cutting off exports of rare earth materials to Japan. Tokyo capitulated and released the Chinese captain after two weeks, but relations have remained tense since.
According to the Times’ Martin Fackler:
Since then, Japanese officials had been trying to arrange talks between the leaders in an effort to improve ties, but the most they could manage was two brief, informal encounters during multilateral summit meetings. Diplomatic analysts have said Beijing appeared to be taking a tough stand toward Tokyo to appease domestic public opinion within China, where the standoff incited nationalistic protests.
The Washington Post reported on Saturday that China has drawn fire from the public as well. According to the Post’s Chico Harlan, “Kan's meeting with Hu was a last-second arrangement, coming hours after several thousand demonstrators - holding Japanese flags and shouting anti-China slogans - marched through downtown Yokohama.”
It is unclear to many what was reconciled during the Hu-Kan meeting. As Chico writes, “Japanese Deputy Chief Cabinet Secretary Tetsuro Fukuyama, speaking to reporters, characterized the Hu-Kan meeting as a ‘big step towards improvement,’ though he did not say whether the leaders had reconciled any territory issues.” What is more, it is unclear if the issue of rare earth exports to Japan has been managed or improved. Last Wednesday, The New York Times reported that China continued its unannounced embargo of rare earth materials to Japan by blocking shipments.
As the Times and Post both reported, Prime Minister Kan also met with Russian President Dmitri Medvedev after President Medvedev’s visit to the disputed Kurile Islands drew sharp diplomatic protest from Tokyo. Unlike the meeting with Chinese President Hu, the Times reported that Russia and Japan seemed to remain divided on the Kurile Islands. According to the Times, “Japanese officials said the two sides agreed that cooperation was in both countries’ interest, and the dispute did not stop them from signing a deal to build a fertilizer factory in Russia.”
It will be interesting to watch how these territorial issues unfold in the coming years. It is clear that natural resource issues will play an increasingly important role in foreign policy. One need only look to how these issues affected diplomatic engagement between world leaders on the world stage. And these disputed territories could become increasingly important for states depending on the resources that could be made available. Many of these disputed territories are rich in energy resources, such as natural gas. And as the International Energy Agency reported in its annual report released last week, crude oil production may have peaked in 2006, with production dropping over the next several decades. But don’t be too alarmed: as the IEA announced and The New York Times Green blog reported, “crude production will reach an ‘undulating plateau’ of about 68 million barrels per day between 2020 and 2035.” Of course the price of oil will rise: “Over all, oil prices should continue to climb in coming decades, reaching $135 per barrel by 2035, a price level that some economists believe contributed to the global economic collapse of 2008,” the Times reported.
The bottom line: I doubt we have seen the last of these diplomatic spats between China and Japan and Russia and Japan.
This Week’s Events
On Tuesday, the Press Club will hold an event at 9 AM on Renewable Energy. Then at 10 AM, head to the Wilson Center for Changing Glaciers and Hydrology in Asia: Developing a Blueprint for Addressing Glacier Melt in the Region. Then at 4PM, don’t miss the Wilson Center’s discussion on China's South China Sea Policy.
On Wednesday at 3 PM, head to the Institute for Policy Studies for a discussion on Establishing a Global Climate Fund.
On Thursday, the Elliot School will hold an event on Nuclear Islands: International Leasing of Nuclear Fuel Cycle Sites to Provide Enduring Assurances of Peaceful Use.
Finally, finish off the week on Friday at 10 AM and head back to the Wilson Center for Green Recovery and Reconstruction Training Toolkit for Humanitarian Aid: Rebuilding Stronger, Safer, Environmentally Sustainable Communities after Disasters.