Media  Foreign Affairs and National Security  2020.07.06

Japan-China relations: Xi said, Xi said

the japan times on June 22, 2020

"She said, 'You don't understand what I said.' I said, 'No, no, no, you're wrong. When I was a boy, everything was right.' ... And she's making me feel like I've never been born." This is a famous hook line in a song from The Beatles album "Revolver," released in 1966. I was 13 years old then and coincidentally, so was Chinese President Xi Jinping.

In his New Year speech this January, Xi said, "Without a harmonious and stable environment, how can people live in peace and enjoy their work! I sincerely wish Hong Kong well. ... Hong Kong's prosperity and stability are the wish of Hong Kong compatriots and the expectation of people of our motherland."

In his video speech at the opening of the 73rd session of the World Health Assembly in May, Xi said, "We have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility. We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time."

Do you think what Xi said was what he did? This was one of the questions raised in a late evening TV news show I appeared on last week. The following questions raised in the TV program were intriguing because they may reflect concerns among pundits in Tokyo about Beijing's intentions and behavior.

Why is China intensifying its naval activities around the Senkakus? This is nothing new. China's strategy has been consistent. Beijing wishes to disable U.S. military operations inside the so-called first island chain. In addition, the Senkakus are the only foreign territories located on the Chinese continental shelf in the East China Sea. Beijing, therefore, will never give up its claim to them.

Is Beijing taking advantage of the recent COVID-19 confusion? Yes but this is not the first time for it to do so. Whenever there is a power vacuum for China to take advantage of, Beijing will never miss the opportunity. The latest example is China's construction of artificial "islands" in the South China Sea after the U.S. administration of President Barack Obama did not properly intervene.

Why does China defy the international community by taking tough measures? The Chinese consider themselves to be a victim of the historical trauma they suffered after their defeat in the Opium war in 1842 when the United Kingdom took over Hong Kong and allowed other colonial powers to humiliate China. They are just trying to recover China's traditional sphere of influence in the region.

Will the United States and China go to war? Neither wishes to fight the other and therefore an all-out war is unlikely. Having said that, Beijing is doing its best to limit, if not completely deny, any U.S. military advantages near the Chinese mainland by developing asymmetrical measures to disable the expensive but obsolete traditional U.S. platform-based way of warfare.

How can Japan defend its territories against China's salami tactics? Japan must defend those islands by itself. It can't expect America to do its fighting. Allies do not help allies who do not help themselves. If China tries to take one further step, Japan should be ready to deter it before it begins its move. There should be a slice for a slice.

Will Beijing reconsider its imposition of the Hong Kong Security Law? No, this time it is determined. Beijing must take a tough stance since allowing protest movements in Hong Kong could backfire and eventually lead to the spread of similar protests inside mainland China. In addition, Beijing might believe that the U.S. administration of President Donald Trump will not, or probably cannot, take any risks regarding Hong Kong in an election year.

What will happen to Hong Kong and how should Japan deal with China? This may be the beginning of the end to the 1984 U.K.-China agreement on "One country, two systems." To prevent that from happening, Tokyo must keep in mind that this is an issue between China and the international community, including Japan. The issue should not be viewed in a bilateral context.

Why is China rejecting an independent international COVID-19 fact-finding mission? "A little leak will sink a great ship," an English proverb says. As the biggest autocracy in the world, Beijing fully understands its advantages and disadvantages. It will refuse any independent research or information gathering inside the mainland because it could trigger a chain reaction against the Communist Party's information control.

Is China responsible for the COVID-19 outbreak? "The disease has spread from China," Prime Minster Shinzo Abe officially stated, and it is nothing more or less than that. If you ask whether China is subject to state reparations, that question will be a non-starter for Beijing.

Was the U.S.-China foreign ministers' meeting in Hawaii successful? Hardly. Beijing said it was "constructive," but empirically speaking, if a meeting is said to be constructive it means that although both sides stated what they were supposed to say, they reached no agreement in the meeting yet neither side wished to call it a failure.

Other questions raised on the TV news show included:

Was the Uyghur Human Rights Policy Act of 2020 intentional? Of course! Why did North Korea blow up the inter-Korea joint liaison office? Would Biden change U.S. foreign policy vis-a-vis China if he becomes president? Should Japan still invite Xi Jinping as a state guest? And so on.

In a nutshell, there seem to be growing concern in Tokyo these days that what Xi said may not be what he does. I sincerely hope that my friends in Beijing, and especially those who help Xi navigate the great ship of China, will succeed in convincing him that his deeds must match his words.

Otherwise, as a contemporary of Xi born in the same year, 1953, I must sing the following hook line to myself: Xi said, "You don't understand what I said." I said, "No, no, no, you're wrong. When I was a boy (before the Cultural Revolution), everything was right. And Xi's making me feel like I've never been born."