03.03.2023 Author: Vladimir Terehov

On the geopolitical background to Wang Yi’s meeting with Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese Foreign Minister

In NEO’s recent comments on the visit to a number of European nations by Wang Yi, Director of the Office of the Central Foreign Affairs Commission of the Chinese Communist Party, which took place between 15 and 23 February this year, the author focused on the certain topical aspects of the relations between China, the US the EU and the leading European nations, including Russia.  Most of Wang Yi’s meetings with his counterparts from other countries took place under the auspices of the most recent Munich Security conference, which was primarily devoted to the conflict in Ukraine.

One event that was not covered in the previous discussion was the remarkable meeting on the sidelines of that conference, between Wang Yi and Yoshimasa Hayashi, the Japanese Foreign Minister. That meeting was particularly significant for a number of reasons, and to explore these it is necessary to review certain key developments in the current phase of the “Great Game” of global politics.

This overview will, of necessity, be subjective and somewhat intuitive in character, and will, to a significant extent, reflect the present author’s impressions, which are the fruit of years spent observing any key events in international politics. The first, and most fundamental conclusion to be drawn from these observations (and the one that is most closely linked to the subject of this article) is that one can expect to see a shift in the make-up of the political elite in the US (still the leading nation player as far as global politics are concerned), which will become increasingly dominated by individuals who favor (relatively) neo-isolationist principles similar to those espoused by the nation’s founding fathers.

The early 2000s saw heated disputes between adherents of these principles, and their neo-Conservative opponents (or even enemies), who insisted that the US should not only maintain, but actually extend its involvement in conflicts around the world. The actual course followed by the US ship of state is still being determined by these two opposing political currents.

The first of these currents – non-interventionism – was evident in the US withdrawal from Afghanistan, a process which began under Barak Obama and was completed under the current president, and also in the election of Donald Trump in 2016. Donald Trump focused primarily on resolving his country’s internal problems and criticized its allies for “free riding” at its expense. Although he is often wrongly accused of favoring involvement in foreign conflicts.

As various different recent events within the US have demonstrated, its internal problems are becoming increasingly urgent, and as a result the neo-cons’ interventionist foreign policies are no longer viable.

It is important not to dismiss the USA’s official denials of its involvement in the Crime of the Century, namely the blowing up of gas pipelines in the Baltic Sea. It is still very unclear what long-term implications this act of sabotage may have, especially in terms of the “Great Game” of global politics.

In any event, those attacks eclipse all the negative factors that have been accumulating since the beginning of the century. Including the highly dramatic death-throes of the Ukraine project, which appears to have outlived its “usefulness.” It is possible that the international outrage regularly expressed at this or that incident, and which has accompanied the final act of this drama (for example the recent discussions in the UN General Assembly) may be aimed at distracting global attention from the important event referred to above.

As for who devised, planned and implemented this attack, there are certain “crafty” candidates in Europe that have, over the centuries, become skilled in organizing provocations on a global scale. Although it is entirely possible that these countries would be able to produce incontrovertible evidence that they acted, if not under duress, then at least with Washington’s approval.

In any event, the inevitable reduction (again, this is merely the present author’s view) in the USA’s presence in the international arena will, just as inevitably, be accompanied by a sharp increase in the role played by other significant players, which are currently emerging. There then arises the far from straightforward question of whether the reduction in the USA’s global presence will have a positive or negative impact on the overall situation in the world. It should be borne in mind that questions of this type are always highly complex in nature.

In the past, mathematical modelling has been used to try and compare the resilience to “small shocks” of two versions of the present world political order, one unipolar and the other multipolar.

However, from a practical perspective, the most important point to note is that “multipolarity” is the most likely outcome, and a number of potential “poles” can already be clearly identified. And while there can now no longer be any doubt concerning China’s and India’s claims to this status, there is some dispute about Japan and Germany, the two main nations on the losing side in the Second World War. Although this question has little to do with arguments and personal opinions, and much more to do with the actual position and influence of these two countries in the international arena.

The claim that they are vassal states, owing allegiance to Washington, is in fact greatly exaggerated. If the former German Chancellor failed to react to the revelations of wiretapping by her current main ally, then this was only because she considered this matter of little importance when compared with the overall relations between the two countries (“those idiots have too much time on their hands”). And if the current German leadership has maintained absolute silence concerning the terrorist attacks on the Baltic Sea pipelines, that does not mean that Washington has silenced Berlin, but simply that Berlin itself sees this as the best policy in the circumstances. Although, in political intrigues, a “best policy” is a highly relative concept.

If Japan has decided to buy Tomahawk missiles from the US, then at least two highly significant circumstances apply. Firstly, Japan decided it had to do at least something to counter its key ally’s angry allegations (particularly under the Trump administration) that bilateral trade with Japan was a one-way street. And, apart from arms, Japan had no real interest in anything that the US market had to offer. Secondly, in its relations with China, the age-old problems have resurfaced, along with some relatively new ones. In such circumstances, as a “deterrent,” it is normal for a country to upgrade its arsenal with the latest military hardware.

That, then is the (uneasy) international background to the meeting between Wang Yi and Yoshimasa Hayashi in Munich, the most important aspect of which is the fact that it took place. After all, the Japanese Foreign Minister’s long-planned trip had been postponed a number of times for various reasons (most commonly in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic). At the end of last year it was agreed that it would take place “in the first few months” of 2023. It is still unclear exactly what form the promised trip was intended to take – does the meeting in Munich count, or will Yoshimasa Hayashi make a separate trip to China?

The author can say, very cautiously, that there has been some continuation of the rapprochement between two of the three great Asian powers (it is important not to forget about India, which has its own disagreements with China). In particular, on February 22 delegations from both countries, headed by their respective deputy Foreign Ministers, held talks in Tokyo. The talks focused primarily on security, both in the most general sense, and also in relation to specific issues of concern to both parties. Among other issues, the Chinese delegation obtained clarifications from their Japanese counterparts concerning Japan’s recently adopted new National Security Strategy. The parties agreed to set up a telephone hotline in order to prevent “accidental military incidents” in contested regions by this spring.

According to reports, staff in the two countries’ ministries responsible for various aspects of the economy have also taken part in talks by video conference.

Finally, there has been another significant event with positive implications for relations between China and Japan, and it has to do with Xiang Xiang, the Chinese giant panda whose 5-year stay in Tokyo zoo is now coming to an end, in accordance with an agreement between the two countries. In the current uncertain times the opportunity to watch this gentle creature as she munches on bamboo shoots has been a great consolation to Japanese adults and children alike. But contracts are binding, and February 19 was the last day of Xiang Xiang’s time in Japan.

Many Japanese children, and not a few adults, shed tears as they said goodbye to her. And one Tokyo resident, no longer in her first youth, admitted to journalists that she did not know how she would be able to carry on living without Xiang Xiang. It appears that China has some sympathy for the feelings of its rival’s citizens. Since, according to some reports, China is ready to “consider ways to resolve the problem.”

It is possible that the solution to the “problem” referred to could serve as an important symbol of the new relationship between these two Asian powers. And, as already noted, the international situation in the Indo-Pacific region – the focal point of the current phase in the “Great Game” of global politics – will increasingly depend on that relationship. If Xiang Xiang returns to Tokyo Zoo, or China sends another panda there to take her place, then that will be a sure indication that relations between these two great Asian powers are not as hopeless as they once appeared.

The author will continue to follow the latest developments.

Vladimir Terekhov, expert on the issues of the Asia-Pacific region, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.